Vice President Mike Pence, second lady Karen Pence and U.S. Sen. David Perdue arrive at Southwest Georgia Regional Airport in Albany on Oct. 16, 2018. The group surveyed storm damage from Hurricane Michael. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Stalled in Senate, hurricane relief bill becomes a political headache for Perdue

Perdue and his allies are hoping to revive the stalled negotiations as they return Monday from a two-week recess. The talks are now confined to Washington’s highest levels of power, and lawmakers can’t cut a deal without a green light from President Donald Trump, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. 

That’s left Perdue in a frustrating and increasingly precarious political position: he’s seemingly played all of his chips, yet the two sides aren’t budging. Bad headlines about struggling Georgia farmers and deprived social services in Puerto Rico are compounding, and Perdue is facing apoplectic state allies and Democratic rivals eager to blame him for the standstill. 

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. 

When Perdue and his Georgia colleague Johnny Isakson unveiled their standalone disaster recovery bill in late February, they were expecting relatively smooth sailing. 

They had state officials on board and were working closely with the delegations from Alabama and Florida, who had also been slammed by the hurricane. The measure was written with an eye toward wooing Democrats, folding in money to help California recover from last fall’s historic wildfires and $610 million to bridge a funding gap for Puerto Rico’s nutrition assistance program. 

The latter is what ultimately tripped up disaster assistance talks during the January shutdown, and Perdue thought he could win over Democrats if he could get his close White House ally to agree to that dollar amount. 

He ultimately secured the concession from Trump, but it turned out not to be enough. 

Democrats don’t oppose any of the disaster relief money, but they’ve insisted on more resources for Puerto Rico, which is still struggling to rebuild in the aftermath of 2017’s Hurricane Maria. They want a more open-ended commitment from Washington to aid the island’s sluggish recovery, in addition to a handful of other changes. 

Perdue, Isakson and their GOP allies felt burned – they said Democrats had moved the goalposts on them – and the finger-pointing commenced. Trump refused to budge on the $610 million figure. Democrats insisted on more. Counter-offers were traded and swiftly rejected. 

“I have never been more frustrated as a United States Senator than I am right now,” Perdue tweeted after Democrats blocked a procedural vote on his disaster recovery bill on April 1. “This is pure partisan politics.”

Publicly, Perdue has stuck with the president and slammed Democrats for “blind partisanship.” 

"We gave Democrats exactly what they asked for, but Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., decided to change course and hold disaster relief victims hostage in a misguided effort to extract concessions from Republicans on a number of unrelated topics, including border security,” Perdue said in a recent Fox News op-ed.

Behind the scenes, he’s signaled his willingness to cut a deal with Democrats. He’s currently pushing to move negotiations to a conference committee with the House to rebuild lost momentum. 

There are mounting fears among some staffers that the bill might be delayed until the next big natural disaster hits, or that it gets combined with a contentious unrelated issue that could further complicate negotiations. 

The bill is arguably Perdue’s largest bipartisan undertaking since arriving in the Senate in 2015, and Democrats hoping to unseat him in next year’s election are capitalizing on its uncertain political prospects. 

Opposition research groups have re-upped Perdue’s vote against a previous disaster relief package, which they frame as a sign of hypocrisy. And former Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson, who recently created a Senate exploratory committee, recently questioned Perdue’s effectiveness as a lawmaker. 

"I would say he's the great enabler of this president, and if he has influence then he needs to be using it for the people of Georgia,” Tomlinson said of the disaster recovery bill on the Georgia politics podcast PeachPod. “Apparently he's not doing that or he's very ineffective at his job.”

Former gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, who is expected to announce her Senate plans within days, said Perdue has “jeopardized” hurricane relief for Georgia farmers by siding with Trump’s “absurd vendetta against fellow Americans.” 

“Pitting Americans in Georgia against Americans in Puerto Rico is fundamentally wrong and wholly unnecessary. Georgia families and farmers deserve better leadership, and they deserve real relief now,” she said. 

Perdue’s Republican allies see things differently. In an interview with Channel 2 Action News last week, Trump said Democrats are “trying to hold us up.”

U.S. Rep. Austin Scott, R-Tifton, who recently questioned the White House’s commitment to the relief effort, said Perdue has “done everything he can” to advance the legislation. 

“I think that Sen. Schumer and (top Senate Appropriations Committee Democrat Patrick) Leahy … care more about hurting David Perdue than they do helping the other people that are actually dependent on this disaster relief,” he said. 

The House may make the next move on disaster recovery. Democratic leaders are expected to put their own $17 billion package up for a floor vote in early May. 

Read more: Southwest Georgia farmers wait in pain as storm aid stalls in Congress

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