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Disaster aid deal nears as White House presses border funds

Jennifer Shutt, CQ-Roll Call on

Published in Political News

WASHINGTON -- The monthslong Senate effort to draft a bipartisan disaster aid bill could come to a close within the next week, after members of both parties said Tuesday talks have taken a turn for the better.

"We're going to have a vote next week," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told reporters Tuesday after meeting with GOP colleagues for lunch. "I hope it's a vote on a deal that has been reached with both sides of the aisle and the White House."

The chief holdup on a disaster bill has been on how to ensure aid to Puerto Rico, delayed since last year, finally gets to the island territory to help rebuild after 2017's Hurricane Maria, as well as how to put appropriate financial controls on a new batch of funds.

The White House and Senate Republicans have been less willing to loosen the purse strings for Puerto Rico, charging island officials with mismanagement of prior appropriations. But they've been moving toward the Democrats' position in the interest of moving the broader aid package to help victims of disasters ranging from California wildfires to tornadoes in the Southeast.

"There is some good news," Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said on the Senate floor Tuesday. "I'm encouraged that Republicans have moved in our direction when it comes to Puerto Rico. I hope we can find agreement and put this totally unnecessary political fight behind us and finally deliver relief to disaster-stricken Americans -- wherever they may be."

Prospects for a deal "have improved dramatically," added Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala. "The next step is to try to wrap it up. ... The week before a recess is generally a good time." Senators are scheduled to head home May 24 for the weeklong Memorial Day recess.

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Disagreements about aid to Puerto Rico have mostly been resolved, Shelby said. "I wouldn't say it's not an issue, but we've made a lot of progress there," he said.

Senate Appropriations ranking member Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., said negotiators are getting a lot closer to a final agreement and that he'd "like to see it done in the next few days."

Lawmakers have been working for months to determine how much spending should go to assist states damaged by severe weather during 2018 and the first few months of 2019, with various measures proposing between $13.45 billion and $19.1 billion.

"We're going back and forth, Senator Shelby and I, we have been negotiating back and forth and in fact Senator Shelby and I did a lot of that just this last weekend," Leahy said.

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