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 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 morning, Reps. Lizzie Fletcher, D-Tex., and Garret Graves, R-La., introduced an amendment to the disaster relief bill now before the House that would compel OMB to finalize the rules within two weeks.
The amendment would require the rules "governing the release ofHousing 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."
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."
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 local 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 governor 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 4 or 5 disasters," he said. "It's starting to be the norm."