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GOP Sen. Johnny Isakson On Disaster Relief Package And The Fight In Congress

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

We're joined now by Republican Senator Johnny Isakson of Georgia. He cosponsored the Senate bill that failed to pass last night. Welcome back to the program.

JOHNNY ISAKSON: Glad to be with you.

CORNISH: Now, you want this money of course because of the devastation caused to Georgia farmers by Hurricane Michael last year. Tell us what state they're in, why they need this funding so badly.

ISAKSON: Well, first of all, the damage was devastating, particularly in southwest Georgia where the pecans were hit terribly hard near Camilla and in that area. Pecans are a - not an annual crop, but they're a multi-year crop. It takes about 12 years for a tree to mature. About 70 percent of our trees were injured or taken out, and that's a terrible amount. We also had cotton that was destroyed in large amounts. I can't quantify about bales 'cause we hadn't picked it yet.

CORNISH: And of course agriculture is the top industry in Georgia, right? And I understand it's something like a 50 billion loss at this point.

ISAKSON: It's 21 percent of our gross domestic product for our state, which is huge. And I don't know the total amount and quantified in dollars yet, but it's a huge damage to our state and to our agricultural interests.

CORNISH: When you talk about something like a pecan crop and in a long lead time, I mean, what does that mean for the bottom line for these farmers - right? - when there's a delay in funding of aid from Congress?

ISAKSON: In the worst case, it could mean the loss of your farm because you don't have income to sustain the property during the 12 years while you're trying to remake the crop. In cases where you are in pretty good shape financially, it could take away your safety net for the future. Either way, it's not good for agriculture. Agriculture is a critical crop, but is time-sensitive. It's weather-sensitive. It's farmer-sensitive, and it's politically sensitive, as we learned with this disaster aid. So we've got to pull all those together to get our industry back together in our state.

CORNISH: Senate Democrats say they rejected this bill because it doesn't provide enough aid for Puerto Rico. Can you address that issue?

ISAKSON: Yes, ma'am, I can. Puerto Rico has already gotten money which they've already spent somewhere in the neighborhood of $20 billion. The money that we put in this bill that's before us now that they'd set back last night or defeated last night was $600 million. So it's - and Puerto Rico is getting the money that Puerto Rico is supposed to have. They're not getting some money they want, but needs and wants are two different things. And nobody's getting the need - the want stuff. The need stuff we're doing to make sure our ag industry, the fires which have devastated California, the earthquake which devastated Alaska...

CORNISH: But can I jump in here - because there's 41 billion that has been set aside for recovery for Puerto Rico, and they haven't gotten it. So it's not just that they want it. It's something the government has said we're supposed to deliver to you, and the government hasn't come through on that.

ISAKSON: They haven't yet, but they're going to if we pass this bill. So we're going to have to use some leverage to get it done. Now that they've all of a sudden started creating obstacles for us to move forward, which I think - and I don't know. I'm not blaming anybody. But it seems to me like it's a political operation right now.

CORNISH: By who?

ISAKSON: By the by the Democrats.

CORNISH: To what end, I mean, 'cause to the average listener, to the voter at home, it sounds like lawmakers are pitting two struggling communities - right? - people who have suffered from natural disasters against each other.

ISAKSON: No, that's not the way it is at all. What's happening is one of the two political parties has been pushing to get the disaster aid through. It's money that's out there to be appropriated. But we have to do it by an act of Congress. The people who are trying to make that happen and have slowed all this down are people who have issues with Puerto Rico. They want Puerto Rico to become a state, so they're trying to make a case out of that. They want more votes in the Senate. So if tomorrow Puerto Rico's a state, they get two more votes in the Senate - lots of things like that.

But that's just the petty politics side of it. The truth of the matter is we just got some Georgians and some Americans that have been damaged for which there is money out there to be provided to them, including Puerto Ricans as a territory. We ought to go ahead and do it instead of pick favorites and winners and losers. We're all losers. We don't want to pick tragic losers, and that's what's getting ready to happen.

CORNISH: The Trump administration has yet to issue rules and regulations that would allow Puerto Rico and other states to get access to the funding that is set aside for it. Has the administration said anything about this? Is this something that you think needs to be discussed?

ISAKSON: Anything that would help us get the money released would help us, and everybody should be doing their job. And I'm doing mine, but I'm not about to start opining on the administration or the executive branch or anybody else not doing theirs. I just know that if there's something out there that they should have done, then the president should get it done and get it done as soon as possible.

CORNISH: Well, I ask because the president has been very vocal about what he thinks of leadership in Puerto Rico and that he doesn't believe necessarily that they are handling the funds they get properly. Has this become an obstacle in these negotiations, a political obstacle?

ISAKSON: Well, things like that can become obstacles. I am not saying it is one because I haven't been engaged in that conversation one way or another, and I'm not going to engage myself in this intimate interview on it. All I want to do is one thing. That's my job for the people in my state that are hurting and the states in the other parts the United States that are hurting. As to who to blame or who to call obstructionists or who to call not doing their job, I'm not about to sit there and do that.

CORNISH: Senator Johnny Isakson - he's a Republican from Georgia. Thank you for speaking with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

ISAKSON: You betcha. Thank you Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.