WASHINGTON — The U.S. House of Representatives passed an $81 billion disaster recovery bill aimed largely at hurricane and wildfire victims in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and California on a bipartisan vote Thursday evening.
But the massive federal relief package includes a slew of changes to federal disaster-recovery policy that could remove numerous bureaucratic roadblocks for victims of the 2016 Louisiana floods.
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Billions of dollars in disaster mitigation and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers money included in the bill, meanwhile, could be tapped for flood-prevention projects in Louisiana.
Rep. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge, estimates the state could receive about $600 million in recovery money through the bill. That figure matches previous estimates from the Louisiana Governor's Office of needed infrastructure and flood-prevention funding.
The massive package's fate in the U.S. Senate, however, remained murky on Thursday night. Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, a Texas Republican who's pushed hard for recovery money for his state over the last several months, said Thursday morning the Senate likely wouldn't consider the bill until returning to work in the new year.
Democrats objected to how the overall bill divvies up relief money, complaining that Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands receive short shrift.
Some conservative Republicans, meanwhile, voted against the bill in the House because its $81 billion price tag isn't offset by spending cuts elsewhere in the federal budget. Conservative political groups Heritage Action and the Club for Growth urged lawmakers to vote against the bill.
But a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers passed it by a wide margin, 251 to 169.
U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond was the only member of Louisiana's delegation to oppose the bill. In an interview earlier this week, Richmond praised the bill's policy reforms, some of which he helped author.
But the New Orleans Democrat said inadequate funding for the Virgin Islands to recover from a pair of devastating hurricanes led him to vote against the bill.
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"The good news is that the Senate agrees that this bill is insufficient," Richmond said. "Hopefully, they will draft a better version that includes the resources the U.S. Virgin Islands so desperately needs."
In the Senate, Republicans' narrow two-vote majority means they need Democratic support to pass legislation through the chamber.
Among the policy tweaks in the package is one that would allow flood-hit homeowners who applied for Small Business Administration loans to access Restore Louisiana recovery grants.
Current federal law has severely limited or blocked access to Restore Louisiana grants for the roughly 10,000 Louisianans who applied for SBA loans in the wake of the 2016 floods — even if those homeowners never actually borrowed the money.
That policy change — authored by Rep. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge, and Richmond — is among a number of policy changes potentially affecting Louisiana included in the proposed Disaster Recovery Reform Act, which was tacked onto the disaster relief package passed by the House on Thursday.
The SBA duplication of benefits issue has been among the most frustrating — though not the only — roadblock faced by Louisiana flood victims and local government officials since heavy flooding devastated large parts of the state in March and August of 2016.
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Other provisions would streamline the way the Federal Emergency Management Agency compensates local governments for damage and would ease rules that have made it difficult for religious groups — including local churches and relief organizations like Samaritan's Purse — from tapping federal recovery dollars.
"This is a really big, important bill," Graves said earlier this week. "I would argue that some of the policy reforms in here are actually as important as the money is."
Graves told The Advocate he's been working with Louisiana Sens. Bill Cassidy and John Kennedy, as well as Cornyn and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, to build support in the upper chamber.
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards has also helped lobby senators to back the changes, calling several Democrats — including Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri — to stress the importance of the changes.
"I feel like we've been able to explain to most of the senators who have raised issues," Graves said Thursday.
Advocate staff writer Elizabeth Crisp contributed to this report.
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