Senate turns to disaster relief

Notes by Devin Henry

The Senate could vote in the coming week on a supplemental aid package to fund relief efforts for communities hit by natural disasters throughout the U.S.

House lawmakers on Thursday approved a $36.5 billion bill to fund hurricane relief, a flood insurance program and wildfire recovery efforts in the West amid a string of natural disasters.

The package includes $18.7 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) disaster relief fund — including $4.9 billion for a disaster relief loan account — $16 billion to address national flood insurance program debt and $576.5 million for wildfire recovery efforts. It also provided $1.27 billion for disaster food assistance for Puerto Rico.

It’s the second emergency spending bill passed for disaster relief so far this fall. It comes after a trio of hurricanes — Harvey, Irma and Maria — swept through the Gulf of Mexico and U.S. territories in the Caribbean, and as dangerous wildfires rage in the West.

Sixty-nine Republicans opposed the bill in the House, meaning it could run into problems with some Senate conservatives. But the White House and leadership have endorsed the effort, meaning it’s still likely to pass when the upper chamber takes it up.

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) visited Puerto Rico on Friday to inspect the ravaged island. This week he committed to help Puerto Rico “rebuild its own economy so that it can be self-sufficient” after President Trump tweeted that FEMA and federal resources could not stay in the U.S. territory “forever.”

The Senate is also likely to consider its budget resolution next week, setting up a “vote-a-rama” — a marathon series of amendment votes — that could yield measures dealing with climate change, energy, and environmental regulations.

The last Senate vote-a-rama, in January, was mostly focused on healthcare issues. But climate-related amendments have come in previous budget resolution debates, and could this time too.

With the upper chamber back in session in the week ahead, senators will face questions on a duo of controversial new Trump nominees.

Trump on Wednesday nominated Barry Myers, the CEO of the private weather forecaster AccuWeather, to lead the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Environmental groups have criticized the nomination, noting AccuWeather’s past efforts to curb the ability of NOAA’s National Weather Service to release forecast information. Critics have questioned Myers’ credentials and asked if he would have a conflict of interest in the new position.

Then on Thursday, Trump picked Kathleen Hartnett White to serve as a member, and eventually chairwoman, of the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ).

White is a scholar at a fossil fuels-backed think tank, a critic of environmental regulations and an outspoken skeptic of climate change science. She has even suggested that carbon dioxide, a pollutant with a strong influence on climate change, is a beneficial gas that “makes life possible on the Earth and naturally fertilizes plant growth.”

Environmental groups unsurprisingly criticized the pick on Friday, setting the stage for an aggressive fight over her nomination.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is scheduled to hold a public meeting Thursday, its first since Energy Secretary Rick Perry asked commissioners to overhaul the country’s energy system to prop up coal and nuclear power plants.

FERC Chairman Neil Chatterjee said Friday he is “sympathetic,” to the request, but he said he would not implement a policy if it would “blow up” competitive electricity markets or fail in court.

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