In an overwhelming 90-to-10 vote, the U.S. Senate March 26 passed a vote to open debate on a $13.5 billion disaster bill that includes flood aid for the northern Plains and western Corn Belt.

“People back home are counting on us to get this done,” said Sen. David Perdue, R-GA, the sponsor of the bill, who listed Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri and Kansas among the states “battling natural disasters right now and last year” that would be eligible for assistance.

The measure provides $13.45 billion in supplemental funding for states and territories recently ravaged by tornadoes, flooding, hurricanes, wildfires, earthquakes, volcanoes, typhoons and other such events.

Additional money would be available for forest and watershed restoration and for grants for rural community facilities.

Senator’s plea

In an emotional address on the Senate floor, Sen. Deb Fischer, R-NE, explained how the bill would assist her constituents.

“Nebraskans are facing the worst natural disaster in our state’s history and that’s why for the past week and a half I’ve worked hard to add Nebraska to this disaster relief bill,” Fischer said.

“The legislation released today includes a down payment to help Nebraska ag producers and communities rebuild and recover from the catastrophic damage. This is a good start, but we have a long road ahead and I’m going to continue to fight for Nebraska every step of the way.”

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, R-AL, said, “Millions of Americans are hurting as a result of natural disasters that occurred last year and are currently ongoing. This legislation is the product of months of bipartisan discussions and contains important input from both sides of the aisle and both chambers of Congress.

“It now also includes critical relief for states like Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri and Kansas that are experiencing ongoing, catastrophic flooding. I hope my Democratic colleagues will join us in providing the relief these people need and not stand in the way just because it does not include every single provision they wanted.”

The supplemental appropriations bill provides expands eligibility in certain accounts for states in the Midwest and the South that have experienced catastrophic flooding and tornadoes in 2019 along with critical aid for states affected by disasters in 2018, as well as ongoing relief for disasters that occurred in 2017, including:

Agriculture disaster relief for farmers;

Development grants for small, rural communities;

Assistance for veterans’ health facilities and military construction projects;

Emergency funds for critical timber, watershed, and wastewater infrastructure needs; and

Resources to restore highways, aviation facilities, and other transit projects.

Puerto Rico relief, too

The measure also includes an additional $600 million in nutrition assistance for Puerto Rico—a key Democratic priority in the bill.

President Donald Trump complained during a luncheon with Republican senators March 26 that too much recovery money was being sent to Puerto Rico, which was struck by two powerful hurricanes in 2017 from which the island is still struggling to recover. Early this year, the White House said additional food-stamp money for the island was unnecessary but it now accepts the $600 million proposed in the Senate. Democrats in the House and Senate say the disaster bill “does not adequately address the needs of the American citizens of Puerto Rico and other territories,” reported The Washington Post.

At the lunch, the Post reported, Trump rattled off the amount of aid that had been designated for other disaster-hit states and compared it with the amount allocated for Puerto Rico following the 2017 hurricane, which he said was too high, according to the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the private meeting.

Trump noted to GOP senators that Texas—also battered by a spate of hurricanes—was awarded $29 billion in aid, while South Carolina got $1.5 billion to recover from storms. Trump then questioned why Puerto Rico was getting $91 billion, according to two people familiar with his comments, indicating that this was too much compared with compensation for states on the mainland.

Trump remarked that one could buy Puerto Rico four times over for $91 billion, according to people familiar with his comments, according to the Post report.

But it’s unclear where Trump got the figure for Puerto Rico aid. It is similar to estimates of the amount of damage as opposed to what Congress has approved for relief. One congressional official said it’s difficult to quantify how much aid the island received because of how the money is disbursed.

Grassley: ‘It’ll have to be overcome’

Democrats have criticized the president’s reluctance to provide more money to help the island recover, and Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-IA, asked in a telephone news conference if Puerto Rico could be a stumbling block to flood aid, said, “It’ll have to be overcome.”

Grassley also said it’s “no big deal” if Congress needs some more time to complete work on disaster aid because producers won’t have a complete list of damage for a while.

“That money is going to be there,” Grassley said.

The USDA has an indemnity program for livestock losses but not for grain. This could be another area where funding levels could increase, since in most cases, flood-damaged grain cannot be used in food or livestock production.

Larry Dreiling can be reached at 785-628-1117 or ldreiling@hpj.com.

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