Georgia reps clamber for Hurricane Michael money amid border wall chaos

Rep. Austin Scott, R-Tifton. Vino Wong

Credit: Tamar Hallerman

Credit: Tamar Hallerman

Rep. Austin Scott, R-Tifton. Vino Wong

Updated at 9:00 p.m.

Georgia lawmakers pushed hard in recent weeks for extra federal relief for Hurricane Michael victims, but they broke along party lines Thursday on a stopgap spending bill that included nearly $8 billion to rebuild after recent natural disasters.

That’s because the must-pass legislation also included $5 billion for President Donald Trump’s border wall, a proposition local Democrats said was a non-starter -- even with storm relief attached to it.

“This wall would do nothing to improve our nation’s security and is a serious misallocation of taxpayer dollars,” said Albany Democrat Sanford Bishop, who led the charge to secure Michael money on the House Appropriations Committee. “It should have been stripped from this important funding legislation and considered separately.”

The House cleared the legislation on a narrow 217-185 margin late Thursday, sending it to the Senate, which will almost certainly strip it of the wall -- and potentially the disaster -- money on Friday.

House Republican leaders added both pieces at the eleventh hour to win over different GOP groups.

Members of the House Freedom Caucus, including Jody Hice of Monroe, had urged Trump to reject a bill without wall money, a charge the president took to heart on Thursday morning.

“We're standing here tonight as a voice for millions of Americans who feel like they've lost their voice in Washington,” Hice said in a Wednesday evening floor speech, “And we are saying, it's time right now. Build the wall.”

The disaster money was added to quell a brewing rebellion among Southeastern Republicans, several of whom vowed to vote against any bill without storm relief money. (The original stopgap did not include any extra dollars.)

One of those lawmakers was U.S. Rep. Austin Scott. The Tifton Republican said Congress needed to sign off on the extra funding before the end of the year to provide certainty to farmers and their lenders ahead of the 2019 planting season.

“There’s a big difference in doing something today and Feb. 8,” he said, referring to the stopgap’s expiration date.

The House-passed bill would set aside $1.1 billion for crop losses due to hurricanes Michael, Florence and other 2018 natural disasters, as well as $200 million for an emergency forest restoration program to address timber losses.

In a bid to win over Georgia lawmakers, it would also give special help to peach and blueberry farmers whose crops were decimated following a late-season freeze in 2017.

Democrats panned the border wall money, even as several local lawmakers previously endorsed the need for emergency Michael money.

Bishop panned the bill for providing what he saw as “only token disaster relief for rural communities and farmers in Middle and Southwest Georgia.”

He vowed to use his new perch as chairman of the agriculture appropriations subcommittee in the new year to “craft disaster assistance legislation that more adequately addresses the needs of our farmers, ranchers, foresters, agribusinesses, consumers, and rural communities.”

The bill now heads to the Senate, where Democrats have the votes to stonewall the proposal. That could precipitate a Christmastime shutdown.

It’s also possible senators strip the wall and disaster money out of the stopgap in order to eliminate potential obstacles to passage.

Republican David Perdue, Georgia’s junior senator, indicated he was willing to fight for both additions.

“The Senate should have done this from the start,” he said. “Now, let’s get this package to President Trump.”