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Stalled disaster relief package shows Congress-White House split

Posted at 7:43 PM, May 09, 2019

A disaster relief funding package that stalled in Congress this week has exposed strained ties between Capitol Hill and the White House, after one top Senate Republican described "disagreements" with a top Trump administration official over the proposal aimed at helping states stricken by recent hurricanes, flooding and wildfires.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, an Alabama Republican, aired frustrations with the White House's approach to the aid package on Wednesday.

The comments came after he clashed with President Donald Trump's acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, over competing demands for the legislation.

"Probably in some areas, but we have our disagreements," Shelby said when asked whether Mulvaney has played a constructive role in the process.

After some thought, he added: "Constructive role? He's certainly playing a role."

"That's his job, though," he said.

On Tuesday, Shelby spoke with Mulvaney on the phone to discuss the disaster relief bill, as well as with Vice President Mike Pence during the GOP Senate lunch.

"The tone from the Vice President was good. The conversation I had with Mulvaney was candid," Shelby told reporters afterward. "I said, 'Look, this is the longest I remember a big disaster bill that hadn't been resolved.'"

Complicating matters is an awareness among members of Congress that they won't be passing many major pieces of legislation this year. They see the disaster relief bill as a rare chance to include policy riders and get pet projects passed, which has complicated negotiations and slowed talks.

Shelby's personal quibble centers around the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund. He has long advocated freeing up money for port maintenance and repairs — something that would help his home state of Alabama — but has faced pushback from the administration and his colleagues on Capitol Hill.

He said Wednesday that he wants to include the provision in the $17 billion disaster aid bill, and that he had spoken with Mulvaney about it during their phone call.

For their part, the White House has suggested wrapping in a $4.5 billion request for emergency funding to address an influx of migrants at the southern border, an idea Shelby has pushed back on because it would drive off much-needed support from Democrats.

"We are looking forward to the House and Senate passing a disaster relief bill to bring aid to those impacted as soon as possible," a spokesman for Mulvaney told CNN. "Other than that we are not in the habit of commenting on private and deliberative conversations with members of Congress."

But the primary reason the bill remains stalled is the divide between the White House, Senate Republicans, and Democrats over how much money to include for Puerto Rico . Democrats want to see more money for the US territory, but Trump has openly opposed the idea.

Negotiators were hopeful for progress earlier in the week, with a GOP offer to include more money for the US territory in the form of block grants and nutrition assistance, along with requirements for how Puerto Rico would be able to spend the money.

But progress isn't coming easily. It isn't clear Trump would support the additional Puerto Rico funding, even though Senate Republicans largely have no problem with it, and some Democrats have shot down the GOP plan's requirements for how officials would use the aid.

On Wednesday night, Trump pointed to Democrats when discussing the stalemate during a campaign rally in Panama City, Florida, which was devastated by category 5 Hurricane Michael last fall.

"Now, we need Democrats in Congress to work with us to pass an acceptable bill, we're getting close," Trump said.

On Thursday night, he tweeted: "House Republicans should not vote for the BAD DEMOCRAT Disaster Supplemental Bill which hurts our States, Farmers & Border Security. Up for vote tomorrow. We want to do much better than this. All sides keep working and send a good BILL for immediate signing!"