White House requests $44 billion in disaster relief for victims of hurricanes, wildfires

WASHINGTON — The White House requested Congress approve $44 billion in disaster relief Friday in what would be the largest single round of disaster aid to address the widespread damage inflicted by hurricanes and wildfires over the last three months.

The bulk of the money — $25.2 billion — would be in the form of traditional disaster relief through the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Small Business Administration to help victims of western wildfires and those in Texas, Florida and the U.S. territories slammed by hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria. 

It also asks for $12 billion for flood mitigation projects, $4.6 billion for repairs to damaged federal property, and $1 billion for emergency agricultural assistance.

Some lawmakers already are pushing back on the measure, from Florida Republicans angry that it does not include promised aid to help the battered citrus industry recover from Hurricane Irma and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer who said it "shortchanges" disaster victims, especially those in U.S. territories.

“It does not include sufficient funding for rebuilding and recovery, address the impending Medicaid funding crisis that the islands are facing, or provide waivers for cost share requirements that are sorely needed due to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Island’s financial challenges," he said.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said the measure primarily addresses hurricane damage to Texas and Florida but that aid to the territories will be forthcoming.

"Those storms took place ahead of (Hurricane Maria that struck) Puerto Rico and the assessment from Puerto Rico hasn't been completed yet," she told r"eporters during the daily briefing. "Once that's done, we fully anticipate that there'll be additional requests at that time.

Unlike the first two rounds of relief, the White House is proposing the increased funding be offset by cuts to federal programs, a move designed to assuage fiscal conservatives in Congress who might not vote for a disaster assistance package that adds to the deficit.

Two previous disaster relief bills totaling nearly $51.8 billion that Congress approved earlier this year had no such offsets.

"The administration believes it is prudent to offset new spending," Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney wrote in a letter to congressional leaders.

The offsets, adding up to $59.2 billion, would be made up by cutting a variety of programs the administration views as a low priority and the continuation of automatic spending cuts for non-military agencies.

That condition is likely to face fierce resistance from many Democratic lawmakers who oppose giving the Pentagon immunity from those cuts under budget sequestration while the rest of the federal government would have to abide by them.

Some Florida Republicans, who for weeks have been requesting hundreds of millions in aid to cover losses Hurricane Irma inflicted on the citrus industry, aren't happy either.

“Hurricane Irma hit Florida over two months ago, the losses this storm caused to Florida’s agriculture industry across the entire state are staggering," said Florida GOP Rep. Tom Rooney. "For the citrus growers, fruit is still dropping off the trees and their root systems are rotting. There is no telling how badly this will affect the industry’s future and so far Washington has done nothing."

Rooney, who sits on the Appropriations Committee that will consider the disaster relief measure, said Friday he won't vote for any measure that doesn't guarantee citrus aid. The $1 billion in emergency agricultural assistance is not meant to cover crop losses, he said.

© 2017 USATODAY.COM


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