WASHINGTON — Add one more complication to Capitol Hill negotiations over federal disaster relief for drenched Midwestern states like Iowa and Nebraska.
The White House is now looking to roll $4.5 billion in emergency funding for the U.S.-Mexico border into the final package. It’s a move that even some fellow Republicans are questioning.
“I would rather see it as a separate package, I’ll be honest,” Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, told reporters Wednesday. “It would make it much harder to get passed — that’s why I would like to see it as a separate package. We’d like to just take a straight up disaster aid bill.”
Ernst said she certainly wants to see funding approved to address the situation on the border, which she said more and more people are recognizing as a crisis.
And she noted that the emergency funding request isn’t even intended to build a border wall, a particularly hot-button topic, but rather would be used for purposes such as providing more beds for detained families crossing the border.
Still, any proposal involving the border and immigration represents a political minefield and has the potential to further delay a disaster package that’s been mired for months over other disputes, such as how much recovery money to provide Puerto Rico.
And impatience is growing among affected communities, from the hurricane-ravaged Southeast to a flooded-out Midwest.
A bipartisan group of governors from 10 states — including Nebraska and Iowa — sent a letter this week to President Donald Trump and congressional leaders urging support for disaster relief.
The governors noted that preliminary measures had moved forward in both chambers but suggested that Washington could show a little more urgency.
“After months of debate and continuing significant events driving widespread unmet needs for these states and communities even higher, now is the time to bring these efforts together in a final form and to bring national resources to bear where needed,” they wrote.
Senate Republicans have said they want disaster relief money approved before they leave for their Memorial Day recess. The House is expected to vote on a fresh version of the supplemental appropriations bill by the end of this week.
Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., a member of the House Appropriations Committee, has been pushing to include in that bill funding for Offutt Air Force Base, which was inundated by the flood.
The Air Force is seeking at least $420 million to clean up the base south of Omaha and repair its damaged structures.
One issue is a ban on congressional earmarks for specific projects. Fortenberry’s proposal would increase Air Force accounts for the purpose of repairing bases damaged by natural disasters, which would presumably be used to help Offutt.
Assuming that a new funding bill passes the House this week, it would still need to be approved by the Senate, where negotiators are now grappling with the fresh issue of border funding.
Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., said Congress needs to approve that money for the border but could do so with a different vehicle.
“It needs to be addressed,” Fischer said. “I don’t know if it needs to be included in a bill like this. It obviously has to be in something that’s going to move.”
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said rolling border-related funding into the bill would probably make it more difficult to pass a measure that’s already struggling to move forward.
“This political dispute over disaster money, and particularly as it relates to Puerto Rico, is pretty surprising to me,” Grassley said. “You don’t run into this very often.”
The situation is not entirely unprecedented, however.
Many GOP lawmakers voted at various points against a disaster relief package for those hit by the devastating 2012 Hurricane Sandy.
Grassley said he voted against that package because it included too much future spending, while Fischer cited the inclusion of too many unrelated items.
Democrats have criticized those kinds of GOP objections to the Sandy relief package as overblown. And Democrats describe the current situation as the White House throwing wrenches into negotiations that should be straightforward.
Fischer took issue with the idea that it’s the administration’s fault.
“You talk about throwing wrenches in it — to watch the other side continue to stall is very frustrating,” Fischer said.