Talks to send long-delayed emergency money to farmers and other Hurricane Michael victims hit a major snag on Capitol Hill late Monday when a pair of powerful Democrats indicated they were opposed to a proposal spearheaded by Georgia’s two U.S. senators.
The announcement from U.S. Rep. Nita Lowey and U.S. Sen. Pat Leahy, the top Democrats on the House and Senate Appropriations Committee, sapped bipartisan momentum from a $13.6 billion aid package being pushed by Republicans David Perdue and Johnny Isakson. And it raised real questions about whether the two parties could cut an agreement on natural disaster assistance before the end of March, when federal nutrition payments to Puerto Rico are scheduled to be slashed once again.
Bank loans are also coming due for many Southeastern farmers who need to settle their 2018 debts. Georgia lawmakers warn that without a fresh injection of cash from Washington, local farmers hit hard by Hurricane Michael, foreign tariffs and low commodity prices may not have the wherewithal to plant their crops for the upcoming year.
“This is nothing but pure politics,” said Perdue. “It’s time to step up and do the right thing for these people back home.”
Georgia lawmakers had been optimistic about the state of talks ahead of last week’s recess, so they were blindsided by the statement from the senior Democrats on Monday.
The Democrats said the Perdue-Isakson effort “does not adequately address the needs of the American citizens of Puerto Rico and other territories” and indicated it would be rejected in the House if not filibustered in the Senate.
“As Americans, we should not pick and choose who to help in times of need,” Leahy and Lowey said. “We stand ready to support a disaster package that addresses the needs of all disaster victims. Anything short of that will not pass the House.”
Their biggest objection was the bill’s funding level for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands in the aftermath of 2017’s Hurricane Maria.
Puerto Rico’s food stamp program is designed differently from those used by U.S. states, which receive as much funding as needed from the feds. Democrats want a more open-ended commitment from Washington to aid the island’s sluggish recovery beyond the $610 million for nutrition assistance provided in the Perdue-Isakson bill.
They are also pushing for an additional $68 million for Medicaid assistance for the U.S. territories in the Pacific and climate resiliency funding for infrastructure projects, according to a House aide who was not authorized to speak on the record.
Georgia GOP negotiators have accused Democrats of changing their asks at several points during the negotiation. They said they included the $610 million in the original bill because that was the amount requested by Democrats earlier this year.
“Every time we’ve gotten there the goalposts have changed,” said Isakson.
Senators are scheduled to cast a procedural vote late Tuesday on some sort of aid package for victims of Hurricane Michael, Puerto Rico and other recent natural disasters. It’s unclear whether that legislation will be the Perdue-Isakson bill or another measure.
It’s also not clear whether Senate Democrats will be willing to support that proposal to revive the sputtering talks. Some senior senators on Monday spoke of launching a conference committee with the House, which would slow the timeline for aid.
Isakson and Perdue are under immense pressure from the Georgia political establishment, banking and farm groups to quickly push some sort of Hurricane Michael bill through the Capitol.
At the other side of negotiations is President Donald Trump, who’s opposed to setting aside more funding for Puerto Rico because he’s reportedly convinced island officials are mismanaging the money.
Perdue and Isakson, working in concert with Gov. Brian Kemp, managed to squeeze the $610 million commitment from the president last month, but the White House has privately telegraphed it’s unwilling to accept more.
“The White House just keeps interfering,” Leahy said.
Republicans on Monday circulated a recent Government Accountability Office report that showed the vast majority of previously-approved funding for hurricane damage has yet to be allocated in Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and elsewhere.
Meanwhile, cuts to food stamp benefits have already begun to plague Puerto Rico. In south Georgia, some farmers have aimed to push past the uncertainty.
“Our guys are already in the fields,” said U.S. Rep. Austin Scott, R-Tifton. “I have a real fear that if (the bill doesn’t pass) this week, it doesn’t happen for a couple of months.”
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