Ga. senators introduce hurricane recovery bill, aim for quick action

Georgia U.S. Sens. Johnny Isakson, left, and David Perdue at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing in 2015. Senate Photography Office.

Credit: U.S. Senate Photographic Studio-

Credit: U.S. Senate Photographic Studio-

Georgia U.S. Sens. Johnny Isakson, left, and David Perdue at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing in 2015. Senate Photography Office.

Georgia’s Republican U.S. senators introduced a bill Tuesday seeking billions in relief for farmers hit by Hurricane Michael with hopes that Congress can speed up recovery four months after the storm slammed southwest Georgia.

The roughly $13 billion measure also includes recovery money for other recent natural disasters, including the wildfires that ravaged portions of the West and the humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico.

The latter is what tripped up congressional negotiators earlier this month, when lawmakers were racing to finalize a broader government spending package to end the border wall showdown. The omission of that disaster relief money blindsided Georgia lawmakers, who had previously been assured that the funding would be included in the catchall package.

The new spending measure, co-sponsored by U.S. Sens. David Perdue, Johnny Isakson and a bipartisan group of colleagues from Alabama, Florida and North Carolina, is designed to move quickly. In addition to the Puerto Rico nutritional assistance, a major priority for Democrats, the measure also includes recovery money for the volcanic eruption in Hawaii, typhoons in Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands and assistance to veterans’ health facilities, transit and infrastructure projects and timber crops harmed by recent storms.

Also covered by the bill: the late-season freeze that harmed Georgia's peach and blueberry farmers in 2017.

“The most important disaster or emergency in America right now is in our agriculture sector in south Georgia, in north Florida, South Carolina, Tennessee and North Carolina, and we’re going to get that done now,” Isakson said Monday evening.

Perhaps most critically, the legislation has the support of President Donald Trump, according to Perdue and Isakson. The duo both made personal calls to the president last week urging him to support their effort, as did Gov. Brian Kemp, who also made appeals while in Washington recently for a meeting of Republican governors.

“We’ve had several conversations since (last week) about how important this is to” Trump, Perdue said Monday. “He visited to Florida and Georgia, saw the damage… This is the president just following through on what he wanted to do.”

Senate GOP aides said they expect the chamber to quickly advance the legislation in the weeks ahead, but Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has yet to lay out a timetable and Democratic leaders have not weighed in publicly.

House Democrats say they will wait for the Senate to act first. The chamber passed a spending bill during the government shutdown that would have reopened federal agencies and set aside more than $12 billion in emergency spending for natural disaster victims, but it didn’t move in the Senate because it excluded funding for Trump’s border wall.

Some aides privately fretted that the money might be too little, too late. Should Congress approve of the funding, it will take time for the dollars to flow to Georgia farmers, and bank notes were due weeks ago for many. But supporters said the money would still be helpful as farmers prepare for planting season.

Hurricane Michael caused generational damage to farming communities across south Georgia, and estimates project the damage could exceed $3 billion. Trump and Vice President Mike Pence toured the area after the storm, promising federal aid.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has handled immediate cleanup needs following the storm. The state has also stepped up its support as local leaders have upped the pressure on Georgia's congressional delegation to push for speedy passage of the emergency money.

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