Relief for wildfire, hurricane victims tied up in federal talks about the border wall

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Disaster recovery funds for victims of California’s wildfires and other natural disasters has emerged as a bargaining chip in the battle to build President Donald Trump’s border wall.

Members of Congress formally launched negotiations Wednesday on a spending deal to keep the government from shutting down against on Feb. 15, a discussion that hinges on Trump’s demand for $5.7 billion to build a wall — “or Physical Barrier,” as he tweeted Wednesday — on the southern border with Mexico.

But other less-controversial government funding is also tied up in the discussions, including as much as $14 billion for communities in California, North Carolina, Florida and Puerto Rico that have been pummeled by fires, flooding and hurricanes in the past two years.

“In the next 16 days, our task is clear: finalizing appropriations legislation that responsibly funds much of the federal government,” House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey of New York said in her opening remarks at the meeting to resolve the spending impasse. “We are very close to agreement on the other six appropriations bills,” aside from homeland security spending, Lowey said.

The House has twice passed disaster aid funding bills, once in December, when the chamber was controlled by Republicans, and once in January under Democratic control. The funding would go to government agencies like FEMA, the Federal Highway Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help communities rebuild from disasters, as well as funding for the U.S. Forest Service and Army Corps of Engineers to help prevent future fires and flooding. The Senate, however, has not passed its own disaster legislation.

California, alone, requested more than $9 billion for wildfire recovery in November to help with tasks like debris removal and rebuilding homes, schools and roads destroyed by the fires in Butte County and Southern California last year.

Aides in both chambers say the best hope for passing disaster aid is to tack the recovery money onto any spending deal that’s reached on homeland security, including money for a border wall or barrier.

Washington just emerged from its longest shutdown in history, which closed roughly a quarter of federal government from Dec. 22 to Jan. 25. President Trump finally agreed to sign short-term funding legislation that reopened the shuttered agencies for three weeks, while convening a congressional committee to hash out a deal on border security funds. Members of Congress from affected states are arguing the stalled disaster relief legislation needs to also be part of those discussions.

“I think there’s good consensus on both sides among my California colleagues” to move the disaster aid funding as part of the broader spending package, said Republican Rep. Doug LaMalfa, whose Northern California district includes the town of Paradise and other communities devastated by the 2018 Camp Fire, the most deadly in state history.

But that could be scuttled by the wall stand-off. Democratic leaders in Congress have continued to maintain that they will not vote for money for a wall. Asked at her Jan. 25 press conference if Democrats would continue to object to wall funding, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco replied, “Have I not been clear on the wall? I’ve been very clear.”

Trump warned on Twitter Wednesday, however, that “If the committee of Republicans and Democrats now meeting on Border Security is not discussing or contemplating a Wall or Physical Barrier, they are Wasting their time!”

Congressional aides say that the failure to reach a deal not only threatens the quarter of the government agencies whose funding will expire again in mid-February, but also any other spending that lawmakers hoped could tag along with it. “I think all of this is tied up on reaching an agreement on homeland” spending, said one, who was not authorized to speak publicly on the dynamics of the negotiations.

As he and others pointed out, disaster recovery is the type of popular, bipartisan legislation that negotiators can use as leverage to try and attract votes when added onto other, more controversial, proposals. Neither party would want to give up that leverage absent a broader deal.

“You maybe bring in more votes” if you add disaster funding to a border security bill, mused Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, a key member of the spending talks. But the Alabama Republican was non-commital about whether or not it would be included in any border security deal.

La Malfa, too, acknowledged that “a package that has that all together has a better chance politically, votes-wise.”

In addition to resolving the bigger wall debate, however, lawmakers will need to work out some disagreements between Democrats and Republicans on disaster aid. Senate Republican’s proposal included $12.7 billion for aid to wildfire, hurricane and other disaster victims. That’s $1.5 billion less than what House Democrats are seeking. House Democrats want those additional funds primarily for Puerto Rico, which is continuing its long, slow recovery from Hurricane Marie in 2017, including $600 million to shore up the island territory’s food stamp program, known as SNAP.

Lowey acknowledged Wednesday that “we have some differences on disaster relief and recovery,” but said she believes “we can come to a speedy agreement there.”

The bigger question mark is whether Trump will be happy with any border security compromise that Congress comes up with. La Malfa, for one, did not even want to entertain questions about the path for wildfire recovery money if the border wall negotiations fail. “I’m not going to speculate on that right now,” he said. “I’m hoping we have a productive two weeks.”

Kate Irby and Brian Murphy contributed to this report.