Capitol Hill push for Hurricane Michael relief could take weeks

Farmer Trey Pippin walks past a pile of dead pecan trees at his farm in Albany on Feb. 5, 2019.  South Georgia farmers were hit hard by Hurricane Michael in October 2018. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

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Farmer Trey Pippin walks past a pile of dead pecan trees at his farm in Albany on Feb. 5, 2019. South Georgia farmers were hit hard by Hurricane Michael in October 2018. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Georgia officials amplifying their pleas for Congress to quickly approve emergency money for Hurricane Michael victims are coming face to face with a Capitol Hill reality: the glacial pace of business in the U.S. Senate.

There's currently no stated opposition to the $13.6 billion disaster recovery legislation introduced last week by Georgia Sens. David Perdue and Johnny Isakson. And Majority Leader Mitch McConnell recently acknowledged the situation facing farmers in the Southeast is a "genuine emergency," one the Senate would soon tackle.

But even with the support of the Kentucky Republican and President Donald Trump, which Perdue and Isakson say they’ve secured, it could take weeks for Congress to finalize an aid package for farmers and infrastructure repair.

Senior Democrats have yet to publicly weigh in on the legislation, which includes funding for the victims of the California wildfires, flooding and volcanic eruptions in Hawaii and a late-season freeze that decimated Georgia's peach and blueberry crops in 2017.

The support of the chamber’s Democratic brass will be critical for the party’s rank-and-file members whose votes will be needed to advance the legislation, not to mention House Democratic leaders who will decide whether to take up the Senate bill.

The offices of Perdue and Isakson say the legislation was written to be as non-controversial as possible. It includes an olive branch to Democrats in the form of $610 million for Puerto Rico's nutrition programs. The assistance was the tripping point that led to the natural disaster money being stripped from last month's border package at the eleventh hour, an omission that avoided a second shutdown but sent Georgia lawmakers reeling.

In the interest of advancing the Michael money quickly through Congress, Georgia senators asked Trump to lift his previous objections to the Puerto Rico money - a precondition for Democrats - which they said he agreed to do. The White House has yet to publicly comment on the legislation.

The bill appeared to be gaining steam among key lawmakers late last week, including from Puerto Rico’s Capitol Hill representative and Patrick Leahy, the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee.

“I am committed to working with (Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard) Shelby, and with House appropriators, on a package that can pass both chambers and that addresses the needs of all states and territories hit by recent disasters,” said Leahy. “I urge Senator McConnell to commit to bringing this to the floor as soon as possible.”

Shelby, whose home state of Alabama was also hit by Hurricane Michael, said he’d like to advance the legislation before the chamber adjourns for its upcoming recess around March 15.

The Senate this week is scheduled to hold confirmation votes on handful of Trump administration nominees. That suggests the disaster relief bill might not see action until the week of March 11 - and its timetable in the House is still unclear.

Perdue, Isakson and party leaders will huddle to discuss the legislation on Monday afternoon.

Farm and banking groups are urging legislators to pass the measure as soon as possible to give the agriculture sector financial certainty as farmers seek loans for the upcoming planting season.  A major “cliff” will come at the end of March, when some 140,000 Puerto Ricans are slated to lose their food stamps should Congress not act, according to Leahy.

It’s possible that senators could try and attach unrelated policy items to the bill, which might further complicate the legislative process. A compensation fund for the victims of 9/11 is running low on money and there are more than two-dozen lapsed tax breaks that Congress has yet to renew.

Isakson and Perdue will likely fight to keep the extraneous items off the bill to ensure its quick passage.

“For some in my state, the timing of assistance is not just a matter of putting a crop in the ground this year; it is a matter of potentially never putting a crop in the ground again,” Perdue said in a floor speech last week. “If we do not help these people right now, they may lose their businesses and livelihoods through no fault of their own.”

The legislation introduced by Georgia’s Republican senators includes $3 billion in assistance to farmers to help compensate for crop losses; $480 million to cover the destruction of forests used for timber; and $414 million for projects to improve wastewater and drinking water infrastructure.

The Senate’s slow pace has prompted some restlessness among Georgia officials.

Gov. Brian Kemp and Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black held a press conference last week imploring Congress to take quick action. In a House Agriculture Committee hearing, Tifton Republican Austin Scott told Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue that he no longer knew what to tell constituents in his largely rural congressional district.

“I’ve been telling them since October help is coming, and I honestly don’t know what to tell them anymore,” Scott said last week. “It feels like a broken promise back home to the people when we just keep saying help is coming.”

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