WASHINGTON -- The largest disaster aid package in U.S. history, which includes money for the Wine Country fires, became entangled in a new budget dispute Tuesday in the Senate, where it has languished since December.
The $81 billion disaster aid legislation, along with many items of urgent business, got swamped by a partisan brawl over a stopgap spending bill that led to a temporary shutdown of the government over the weekend.
But after government reopened Monday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell set a new target date of Feb. 8 to pass the disaster bill.
"With all the other stuff, it hasn't risen to the top" of the Senate schedule, said Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, who has spearheaded the drive in Congress to get federal aid for the fires.
The legislation includes $4.4 billion for the fires that engulfed Northern California in October, along with billions more in relief for damage from three big hurricanes that struck Texas, Puerto Rico and Florida last fall.
The House passed its disaster bill Dec. 21, but it died in the Senate in the midst of a broader fight over a short-term spending bill and Democrats' demands to provide legal status for young immigrants just before Congress broke for Christmas.
Republican leaders put off the disaster bill, promising it would be considered in January.
But on Tuesday, despite overwhelming support for disaster relief in the Senate, the aid package became embroiled in a budget agreement senators are attempting to craft by Feb. 8 when the short-term spending bill Congress approved Monday to reopen government ends.
Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the Senate's second-ranking Republican who has come under criticism in his own state for the stall on relief for hurricane-devastated Houston, is accusing Democrats of holding the relief "hostage" to a broader budget agreement.
Democrats say they're not holding up anything.
"Congress needs to get this disaster money taken care of as soon as possible, and it's my intention to push for it to be included in the next budget deal," said California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat. "Between wildfires and mudslides, we've seen 55 deaths, more than 10,000 buildings destroyed and 1.2 million acres burned. Californians are counting on federal assistance to help recover."
Tyrone Gayle, spokesman for Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., said Harris "strongly believes the disaster aid package be included in the next spending bill to support the victims of the Northern California wildfires and those affected by the hurricanes in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands."
Meanwhile, senators were jockeying for more money behind the scenes. Democratic aides said Cornyn was asking for substantially more money for Houston, which was badly flooded by Hurricane Harvey, while Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., is angling for more money for Puerto Rico, devastated by Hurricane Maria.
The current bill does not include money for December's wildfires in Southern California and the subsequent mudslides this year. "Those costs are still being calculated," said Brian Ferguson, a spokesman for Gov. Jerry Brown. But the bill for the Southern California damage is expected to be lower than in Northern California because, while the fires around Ventura burned more acreage, they did not burn as many structures.
Jack Tibbetts, a Santa Rosa City Council member, said it is critical that the city receive a funding formula for wildfire aid that Thompson got included in the House bill. Under that formula, the federal government would pick up 90 percent of the costs, and state and local governments 10 percent.
The city had $32 million in its reserve account before the fires, and now has $19 million and is "looking at a bill of $23 million to pay the Army Corps of Engineers and Office of Emergency Services" for debris removal and other costs, Tibbetts said.
If the formula is reduced, Tibbetts said the costs could put the city in a $5 million financial hole.
The disaster relief is tied to negotiations over budget legislation that will last the rest of the year, replacing the numerous temporary stopgap funding bills Republicans have relied on since the fiscal year ended Sept. 30.
The two parties are negotiating over how to lift budget caps that have held down both military and domestic spending since 2011. Democrats want to keep domestic spending on an equal footing with the big boost in military spending that Republicans want.
The current disaster bill is viewed as less urgent than previous disaster bills because the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which provides relief to individuals, remains flush with cash and is able to continue to make payments to homeowners and other individual victims.
But Florida citrus growers said their situation is getting desperate. Hurricane Irma flattened thousands of acres of orange groves in the state, leaving growers without cash to prepare their trees for next year's crop. "The term urgency has been used so much in last few weeks that it's almost lost its power," said Shannon Shepp, executive director of the Florida Department of Citrus, a state agency.
"It's a real morale issue when you start looking at four months later ... and it isn't being seen as such a priority in Washington," Shepp said.
Last year set an overall record for the cost of weather- and climate-related natural disasters in the United States, reaching $306 billion, according to the National Centers for Environmental Information. The nation experienced 16 extreme events costing more than $1 billion, including hurricanes, severe storms, droughts, floods and wildfires. The previous record, $215 billion in costs, was set in 2005, when Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans.
The agency said the cost of Western wildfires in 2017 tripled from the previous record, to $18 billion. Last year was the third warmest year in the U.S. on record, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the warmest for a year without an El Niño. Climate scientists expect the costs of climate-related disasters to grow significantly as temperatures rise and more weather-related disruptions occur.