More than $37 billion in disaster aid under scrutiny in congressional lame duck
Boats sit grounded in a woodland area and along the side of the road after being pushed by rising water from Hurricane Ian near Fort Myers Beach on Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022 in San Carlos Island, Florida. The hurricane brought high winds, storm surge and rain to the area causing severe damage (Win McNamee / Getty Images).
WASHINGTON — The Biden administration wants Congress to approve more than $37 billion to help communities throughout the country recover from various natural disasters, including Hurricanes Ian, which battered Florida and the Southeast U.S. in late September, and Fiona, which hit Puerto Rico.
The supplemental funding request comes on top of a $9 billion COVID-19 funding request and a third request for nearly $38 billion in additional relief for Ukraine that the White House sent up to Capitol Hill in mid-November.
The most-likely timeline for the three requests to move forward is next month, when Congress must pass spending legislation before a stopgap government funding bill expires on Dec. 16. If some sort of spending package isn’t law before then, a partial government shutdown would begin.
President Joe Biden met with congressional leaders at the White House on Tuesday to discuss the bills that must pass during the current lame-duck session of Congress, including the spending package.
The Biden administration wrote in the 43-page natural disaster funding request that the federal government needs “to help our communities recover and rebuild from extreme weather events and natural disasters.”
“That’s why we are requesting $37.3 billion to fund critical disaster response and rebuilding efforts in Florida, Puerto Rico, and other communities across America that have faced severe flooding, wildfires, drought, and extreme heat over the past year,” the White House budget office wrote in the document.
“As the President often says, we must be there for these communities every step of the way — for as long as it takes.”
Hurricanes, floods, drought, fire
The disaster request would funnel $29.6 billion to various federal departments and agencies to continue Hurricanes Ian and Fiona recovery efforts.
Another $7.7 billion would go towards other major disasters and unmet needs, including $100 million for the U.S. Agriculture Department to help with ongoing flood recovery in Kentucky.
The White House proposed Congress provide the U.S. Department of Energy with $270 million to help local, state and tribal governments with electric grid resilience and to offset the impacts of extreme drought on hydropower out West.
Under the disaster request, which must be approved by Congress, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security would get $2.9 billion to “provide survivor claims related to the Hermit’s Peak fire in New Mexico.”
The U.S. Interior Department would receive $262 million to address flooding at the Bureau of Indian Education TóHajiilee Community School in New Mexico and for other natural disasters, like landslides on Denali Park Road in Alaska.
The White House also wants U.S. lawmakers to approve $73 million for Interior to continue recovery efforts related to Alaska typhoon Merbok.
The $29.6 billion request for Hurricanes Ian and Fiona recovery would be divvied up between several U.S. departments, including $3.5 billion for Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Recovery through the Department of Housing and Urban Development and $2.1 billion for the Agriculture Department to provide financial aid for crop damage as well as “payments beyond crop insurance.”
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which includes FEMA, would get $15 billion to continue hurricane relief and to make payments from the National Flood Insurance Program to policyholders.
Biden said at the beginning of the Tuesday meeting in the Roosevelt Room that he hoped the four leaders and his administration could “work together to fund the government, COVID, and the war in Ukraine — all controversial and consequential issues.”
Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, said afterward outside the White House they and their GOP counterparts agreed to try to get a full-year government funding bill to Biden before leaving for the winter break.
But House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy said after Pelosi and Schumer spoke that he would be willing to push off major government funding decisions until next year, when his party regains control of that chamber.
“If we can’t get common sense in appropriations bills then yes, we’ll support a CR and fix this come January,” McCarthy said, referring to continuing resolutions or short-term government funding bills.
McCarthy said he would not back “a blank check for anything” and noted he wanted “to make sure whatever funding” Congress spends on Ukraine aid “goes to the right places.”
Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby, the top Republican on the panel that will draft the spending package, said Tuesday afternoon that natural disaster funding is a possibility since so many states have been affected this year.
“Florida stands out with a lot of others and I’m sure it’s going to be part of the conversation,” he said, noting that bipartisan talks over government funding are picking up.
Shelby said that he expects Republicans will back some additional aid to Ukraine, saying that when “people are fighting for freedom like that, we should never turn our back.”
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