House Democrats finally managed to pass a $19.1 billion disaster relief bill Monday, sending the measure on to President Donald Trump, who is expected to sign it.
The 354-58 vote came after Republican conservatives blocked the bill from advancing on three separate occasions while lawmakers were away on a week-long recess — an appropriately acrimonious legislative finale after months of partisan discord.
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Once it’s signed into law, the bill will unlock billions of dollars in grant funding and reimbursement cash for communities still recovering from hurricanes, tornadoes, volcanic eruptions, extreme flooding, wildfires and typhoons.
“It’s been protracted. It’s so long — longer than I’ve ever heard,” Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) said Monday night about the process of negotiating the disaster aid deal. “A lot of people were waiting too long. I think we could do better. I don’t think it was our best show.”
As Trump dug in over the last few months with resistance to extra aid for Puerto Rico, the nation’s recovery tab steadily rose following disasters including the severe flooding that has slammed the Midwest in recent months. More disasters struck the longer the cross-party bickering dragged on, jacking up the legislation’s overall price tag and further complicating the task of enactment.
The measure makes $331 million in community development grants available to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, as well as $600 million in nutrition assistance to Puerto Rico and $25 million to the Northern Mariana Islands. That extra aid to Puerto Rico comes at the chagrin of the president, who has repeatedly argued the U.S. territory’s officials are “incompetent” and that the islands have received more than enough federal assistance since they were struck by a duo of catastrophic hurricanes in 2017.
Under the bill, USDA would mete out $3 billion to help defray the effects of lost crops, including for farmers who will miss planting season this year. Another $150 million goes to the USDA program that provides grants and loans to help rebuild rural facilities like health clinics, schools, police stations and town halls.
Areas recovering from disasters will also have access to more than $2.4 billion in cash through grants the Department of Housing and Urban Development doles out and nearly $1.7 billion for fixing damaged roads and bridges.
The Army Corps of Engineers will get nearly $3.3 billion to repair damaged projects and do work to reduce the effects of future disasters.
California communities hit by wildfires during the state’s most devastating blazes last year would be eligible for money through USDA rural development programs until 2020 census data is available. Nearly $16 million would go to the Interior Department to do fire remediation work and cover firefighting costs, while another $720 million will be used to repay unrelated U.S. Forest Service accounts pilfered last year to cover fire-related costs.
Billions of dollars will be spread across other federal departments and agencies like the Coast Guard, the Department of Labor, the National Weather Service, the EPA and the Education Department to both rebuild government facilities and provide cash to help disaster-wrought communities.