Senators haggle over Hurricane Michael relief package

Georgia U.S. Sens. Johnny Isakson, left, and David Perdue were reliable supporters of the GOP tax plan as it moved through the Senate this week. Senate Photography Office

Georgia U.S. Sens. Johnny Isakson, left, and David Perdue were reliable supporters of the GOP tax plan as it moved through the Senate this week. Senate Photography Office

U.S. senators inched closer to an agreement Tuesday on an emergency relief package for victims of Hurricane Michael and other recent natural disasters, but significant sticking points remained over aid money for Puerto Rico and other issues.

Georgia U.S. Sens. David Perdue and Johnny Isakson stayed at the center of the fast-moving negotiations as they sought to win over Democrats seeking changes to the $13.6 billion emergency spending bill they introduced last week.

The two Republicans have been scrambling to secure broad bipartisan support for the bill, which would aid farmers hit hard by Michael and other natural disasters since 2017. They've argued that quick passage is necessary because local farmers must obtain bank loans ahead of the upcoming planting season.

Isakson was upbeat about the bill’s prospects on Tuesday afternoon. He said he secured a significant commitment from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell: the promise of a floor vote on March 25 if he and Perdue couldn’t secure an agreement from all 100 senators before then.

“Now we can tell every bank, ‘look, this is the month to (issue loans),” he said. “We’re getting it done.”

A McConnell spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Isakson’s remarks came moments after he emerged from a closed-door meeting with Perdue and the top members of the Senate Appropriations Committee, their second in 24 hours.

One of those lawmakers was Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the panel’s top Democrat.

Read more:  Capitol Hill push for Hurricane Michael relief could take weeks

“We’re very close,” he said. “I think we’ve got a bipartisan solution here.”

Some Democrats have been pushing for the Senate advance a $14.2 billion version of the disaster recovery bill that the Democrat-controlled House passed along party lines in January. The House bill includes several pots of money that were omitted from the Perdue-Isakson bill, including $500 million for climate resiliency projects in communities impacted by recent hurricanes and $68 million in Medicaid assistance to the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam and American Samoa.

The House bill would also expand full federal cost-sharing eligibility for certain storm damage in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, a more open-ended change that has drawn Republican scorn.

Isakson wouldn’t share details about specific sticking points because he feared he could harm delicate negotiations. But he also expressed confidence that an agreement could be struck before March 15, when the Senate adjourns for a week-long recess.

“I will not try and beat somebody up over milk that’s been spilled,” he said. “I’ve just got to make sure we don’t spill any more.”

The movement on Capitol Hill came as Gov. Brian Kemp and Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black were set to travel to Tifton on Tuesday evening to talk with farmers struggling to recovery from Hurricane Michael’s damage.

Kemp and other local officials have upped the pressure on Georgia’s congressional delegation to advance the legislation in recent weeks.

“Let me be clear: Georgia families cannot wait any longer,” Kemp tweeted Monday. “I urge Congress to approve the proposal filed by @SenatorIsakson and @sendavidperdue as soon as possible. Livelihoods hang in the balance.”

Bloomberg reported Tuesday that lawmakers may also try to include aid money for the victims of the tornado that flattened portions of western Georgia and eastern Alabama over the weekend. Damage assessments are still being finalized.

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