WASHINGTON — A Republican congressman from Louisiana says the massive budget deal struck by U.S. Senate leaders on Wednesday cuts Louisiana out of certain disaster-relief changes sought by the state delegation. 

But a staffer on the Senate Appropriations Committee later disputed that assertion by U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, saying that disaster victims in Louisiana will benefit from the bill. Fitzhugh Elder IV, a deputy staff director for the committee, said the bill would allow flood victims approved for SBA loans, but who didn't accept part or all of the loan, to be able to receive federal grant money from the Restore Louisiana program to help rebuild flooded houses. 

Elder said the bill also includes other language that could benefit Louisiana, including money earmarked for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He also said there are provisions he couldn't explain in detail about the Comite River Diversion Canal, a flood mitigation project that has long been a goal of Baton Rouge-area politicians but hasn't been funded by the Corps. 

A key issue after the Louisiana flood has been the SBA "duplication of benefits" problem, in which victims who were approved for federal loans to rebuild their homes are effectively cut out of the Restore grant program. Under current regulations, even if homeowners didn't end up taking the loans, the offer counts against any possible grant they could receive. Elder said the Senate bill would no longer count this unused portion of the SBA loan as a federal benefit. 

However, Graves and others had wanted to get even more relief for people who received SBA loans, essentially allowing these flood victims to receive a Restore grant to pay back all or part of the loans they took. 

In a video posted by his office to YouTube on Wednesday afternoon, Graves said only 2017 hurricane victims in Texas, Florida and American territories in the Caribbean would be freed of the SBA "duplication of benefits" prohibition. The Baton Rouge Republican said victims of Louisiana's 2016 floods would be left out, saying it amounted to "adding insult to injury."

A draft of the proposed spending bill hadn’t been released to the public at that time. Members of the Senate received only briefing materials summarizing the outlines of the agreement early Wednesday afternoon, although staffers said that the bill was expected to be released later in the night. 

U.S. Senator Bill Cassidy tweeted about the issue Wednesday evening, saying he was working to get Louisiana back into the bill. "I’m grateful Rep. Graves proposed a fix to the duplication of benefits issue and Rep. (Steve) Scalise made it apply to the 2016 floods in Louisiana," he wrote. "I’m actively working to finish the job and get our state included in the budget agreement’s disaster benefits provision."

After Graves' video was released, Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, took a swipe at Republican U.S. Senator John Kennedy, noting he is a member of the appropriations committee that is dealing with the bill and the SBA problem. "I am asking Sen. Kennedy to do everything in his power to ensure this fix remains in place for all survivors in every impacted area," Edwards said in a statement. 

But Elder emphasized that Kennedy has been very involved and noted that Graves has had “zero participation in the Senate process."

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It remained unclear on Wednesday evening exactly how many of the disaster-relief changes sought by Graves and other members of the Louisiana delegation would be included in the Senate bill.

In December, the U.S. House of Representatives approved a $81 billion disaster relief package for victims of 2017 hurricanes and wildfires that included many regulation changes drafted by Graves. These included streamlining the way the Federal Emergency Management Agency compensates local governments for damage and making it easier for religious groups, such as local churches and Christian relief organizations like Samaritan's Purse, to get federal recovery dollars.

The House bill also would have sent an extra $600 million in federal flood-recovery funding to Louisiana and contained language to speed the construction of coastal restoration projects in the state.

But the package later sat in the Senate while the delegations from hurricane-hit Florida and Texas argued over relative funding levels.

In his Wednesday video, Graves said many of the reform provisions he wanted got scrapped. "The Senate just screwed Louisiana," he said.

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Follow Bryn Stole on Twitter, @BrynStole.

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