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After months-long wait, Senate tees up vote on Hurricane Michael aid bill

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution — Tamar Hallerman The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

March 15--WASHINGTON -- An end may soon be in sight for Hurricane Michael victims who have been seeking emergency aid from Congress for months.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Thursday teed up a procedural vote on legislation that would deliver federal agriculture and infrastructure relief to victims of recent natural disasters.

Just what will be included in that bill is still unclear, but Georgia senators said McConnell's move sets up votes in the chamber the week of March 25.

"I think we're very close to having sealed the deal," said Republican U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson.

Farmers in southwest Georgia face greater difficulties if the money doesn't come soon. They have new expenses coming with the arrival of another planting season, and they were hit hard by the Oct. 10 storm.

The University of Georgia estimates that Hurricane Michael cost the the state's agriculture sector more than $2.5 billion in losses.

Senior members of the Senate Appropriations Committee were still negotiating the details of the package when lawmakers left Washington for the week-long St. Patrick's Day recess on Thursday evening. Sticking points continued to be the scope of assistance for Puerto Rico as well as potential legislative add-ons.

Democrats are pushing for additional aid for the U.S. territory beyond the $610 million included in the legislation Isakson and Georgia colleague David Perdue introduced last month.

The Georgians squeezed a major concession from President Donald Trump when he agreed to sign off on that amount, since the Puerto Rico money is what derailed disaster assistance talks last month.

The money is aimed at preventing a late March funding "cliff" for the island's food stamp program, which is more limited in scope than the one used on the U.S. mainland. Puerto Rico's Department of Family Affairs began cutting benefits earlier this month in order to sustain the program.

The White House has signaled it won't accept more than the $610 million for Puerto Rico. Trump previously told White House staffers he didn't want additional dollars going to the island because he thought local officials were exploiting the federal government, according to the Washington Post.

Democrats say far more than $610 million is needed for the Caribbean island, which is still struggling to recover from 2017's Hurricane Maria.

"That amount is completely inadequate," said U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who co-authored a recent letter to Senate leaders with three other progressive Democrats, including presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. "Puerto Rico is part of the U.S. The people who live there are American citizens. They deserve the same treatment."

Perdue, a Trump ally, said the president is "trying to meet all the needs that need to be addressed."

Under pressure from Gov. Brian Kemp and local farm groups, Isakson and Perdue have been pushing their Senate colleagues to set aside their differences and advance the aid package as soon as possible.

The tornado that recently ripped through Alabama and Georgia has added more urgency to the effort, and the package Perdue and Isakson introduced will likely be expanded upon to account for some of the damage.

"There will be some additions to it. We just don't know what yet," Perdue said.

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