Frustrated Dems, Republicans team up to pry loose billions in flood prevention funds

Some money would go to red states, but sources say the Trump administration has been reluctant to release funds from a package that includes money for Puerto Rico.
Hsien-Min Yeh, his wife, Julie, and their 20-month-old, Winston, walk back home Wednesday after spending the night in their car in a church parking lot in Sugar Land, Texas. The family could not get through to their home during the heavy rain on Tuesday night.
Hsien-Min Yeh, his wife, Julie, and their 20-month-old, Winston, walk back home Wednesday after spending the night in their car in a church parking lot in Sugar Land, Texas. The family could not get through to their home during the heavy rain on Tuesday night.Mark Mulligan / AP

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By Laura Strickler

WASHINGTON — As heavy rains continue in Texas, Democrats and Republicans in Congress are trying to free up flood-prevention money that has been held up because of what sources from both parties say is President Donald Trump’s reluctance to approve funding that would also go to Puerto Rico.

The $15.9 billion, which was approved by Congress in February 2018 and would go to states that include Texas, Florida, and Louisiana, can’t be released until the White House Office of Management and Budget approves rules for the disbursement. Democrats and Republican in both chambers have teamed up to try to force OMB to write the rules.

On Friday, Reps. Lizzie Fletcher, D-Tex., and Garret Graves, R-La., added an amendment to the disaster relief bill before the House that would compel OMB to finalize the rules within two weeks. The bill passed the House Friday 257 to 150, with 34 Republicans crossing the aisle to join Democrats in voting yes, but there are currently no plans to take it up in the Senate.

The amendment requires the rules “governing the release of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery Program (CDBG-DR) funds for mitigation projects … be published in the Federal Register within 14 days of enactment.”

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Sens. John Cornyn, R-Tex., and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., introduced a stand-alone bill in the Senate Thursday that would force OMB to approve the rules within 60 days.

Officials from HUD, the agency charged with distributing the funds, told NBC News that it sent its proposed rules to OMB on May 1.

Asked why OMB has not approved the rules, a senior administration official told NBC News, "We do not comment on rules currently under review."

A Senate Democratic aide said OMB has not issued the rules "despite the fact that OMB has been a part of HUD’s work in this effort from the beginning." The aide said that when asked how long OMB’s review would take, a HUD official was non-committal “and said, ‘That it is up to OMB and 'out of their control.'"

As NBC News and other media outlets have previously reported, despite pressure from GOP lawmakers in Texas and other red states who need the funds, congressional sources from both sides of the aisle said the administration is reluctant to send more money to Puerto Rico out of concern the money could be at risk of waste, fraud and abuse. More than $8 billion of the funds would go to Puerto Rico, while Texas, Louisiana and other states would get $4 billion.

The House amendment in particular would compel OMB to approve the rules quickly. However, even after the rules are approved by OMB, it will take nine months before local communities can start shovel-ready projects, according to officials in Texas. That will extend well beyond the 2019 hurricane season.

The Texas General Land Office run by Commissioner George P. Bush, son of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, has been lobbying the administration hard to release the funds. Bush wrote the president in January saying OMB had not responded to his multiple requests.

A spokesperson for Bush says his office did not receive any official response to the letter.

In Houston, county officials are impatient given the current flooding, “Our residents should be frustrated with the federal government,” said Daphne Lemelle, director of the Harris County Community Services Department that oversees disaster housing. “We are expecting these next few days to be particularly devastating,” she said. Lemelle says in the time since Congress approved the flood prevention funding the county has had “three or four localized flooding incidents.”

"We shouldn’t be held hostage," said Judge Wayne McDaniel, who oversees disaster recovery for Hardin County, northeast of Houston. When McDaniel spoke to NBC News he said he had just gotten off a call with the National Weather Service informing him his county should be prepared for flooding on Sunday. "I have only been here since January of 2015, and we have already lived through four or five disasters," he said. "It’s starting to be the norm."

Nicole Acevedo contributed.