Senate advances $36.5B disaster relief package

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate today gave a preliminary OK to a $36.5 billion hurricane relief package that would provide Puerto Rico with a much-needed infusion of cash and keep the federal flood-insurance program from running out of money to pay claims.

The 79-16 procedural vote set the stage for a final vote, most likely today.

The measure also provides $18.7 billion to replenish the Federal Emergency Management Agency's rapidly dwindling emergency disaster accounts. Today, FEMA announced more than $500 million in aid to Puerto Rico, including $285 million to help restore power and water services to the devastated island.

An additional $16 billion would permit the financially troubled federal flood-insurance program to pay an influx of Harvey-related claims.

But the bill rejects requests from the powerful Texas and Florida congressional delegations for additional money to rebuild after hurricanes Harvey and Irma. Florida Democrat Bill Nelson, whose state's citrus industry endured significant losses during Irma, sought to add $3 billion in immediate agriculture assistance to the measure, but was denied by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who said money for crop losses would be in subsequent aid measures.

Senate passage on Tuesday would send the measure to President Donald Trump for his signature.

There was urgency to move the measure swiftly – rather than add more money to it at this time – because the government's disaster response and flood insurance reserves are running out. Democrat Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont said that would happen "in a matter of days" without action.

Still, members of the Texas and Florida delegations in Congress are unhappy because the measure failed to address extensive requests for additional hurricane rebuilding money. Texas, inundated by Harvey in August, requested $19 billion, while Florida sought $27 billion.

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