As expected, fight over Puerto Rico stalls disaster aid bill

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A municipal government worker fills containers with drinking water for residents outside the Juan Ramon Loubriel stadium in the wake of Hurricane Maria in 2017. (AP Photo/Carlos Giusti)

Senate Democrats on Monday blocked a Republican disaster aid bill, saying it doesn’t do enough to help hurricane-torn Puerto Rico. The move tossed long-sought relief for victims of hurricanes, floods and western wildfires into limbo.

The vote escalated a fight between Democrats and President Donald Trump, who opposes further rebuilding aid for the U.S. island territory, which was slammed by back-to-back hurricanes in 2017.

The 44-49 vote fell short of a majority, much less the 60 votes required to overcome a Democratic filibuster. It sent GOP leaders back to the drawing board but seemed unlikely to kill disaster aid efforts outright, since there is much political support to send aid to Southern farmers, wildfire-ravaged California towns and Midwestern flood victims.

Trump allies such as Sens. David Perdue, R-Ga., and Rick Scott, R-Fla., are among the strongest backers of the legislation, which has already faced significant delays.

“We will get this done eventually,” Perdue said, promising relief to struggling farmers in his state. The path forward is not clear, but a leading option is for the Senate to pass a much more narrowly drawn bill simply to get the issue into a House-Senate conference committee. House Democrats insist the talks must produce a final measure with help for Puerto Rico.

The amount of money in dispute is relatively small, but Trump feels antipathy toward Puerto Rico’s government and Senate Republicans backed him up — for now — in denying Democratic demands for more aid to rebuild its badly damaged water systems and to ease the requirement that Puerto Rico financially match a portion of the federal government’s aid contribution.

Democrats say Trump has been slow to release already-appropriated funding for Puerto Rico and has exhibited little urgency in helping the island. Trump poor-mouthed the island’s government at a meeting with Senate Republicans last week and suggested Puerto Rico has gotten too much disaster help compared with states such as Texas, using inflated numbers to make his case.

“Just as we leave no soldier behind on the battlefield, we help our fellow Americans when there’s a disaster, wherever the disaster strikes. We do not abandon them. Period,” said Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.

Trump sent a trio of tweets late Monday criticizing the island’s government and its officials and claiming money has already been allocated for Puerto Rico’s recovery.

“The Democrats today killed a Bill that would have provided great relief to Farmers and yet more money to Puerto Rico despite the fact that Puerto Rico has already been scheduled to receive more hurricane relief funding than any ‘place’ in history,” Trump tweeted.

“The people of Puerto Rico are GREAT, but the politicians are incompetent or corrupt,” he added. “Puerto Rico got far more money than Texas & Florida combined, yet their government can’t do anything right, the place is a mess – nothing works. FEMA & the Military worked emergency miracles, but politicians like the crazed and incompetent Mayor of San Juan have done such a poor job of bringing the Island back to health.”

The $13.5 billion Senate measure mostly mirrors a $14.2 billion measure passed by the House in January, combining aid to Southern farmers, California communities devastated by last summer’s wildfire, and hurricane-hit states such as Florida, Georgia and North Carolina. Hurricane-damaged military bases in Florida and North Carolina would receive rebuilding funds.

Democrats want to add almost $700 million more to unlock further disaster aid for Puerto Rico and several states, including help to rebuild badly damaged water systems. Democrats are also trying to force the administration to release billions of dollars in rebuilding funds that have already been approved.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the measure is the fastest way to get aid to the hurricane-slammed South and the badly flooded Midwest, along with nutrition aid to Puerto Rico, where food stamp benefits have already been cut.

“It’s our only sure path to making a law with anywhere near the urgency these Americans deserve. It is the only bill on the table with any provision for the Midwest flooding,” McConnell said. “And it’s the only bill on the table that could earn a presidential signature in time to deliver urgent relief on the nutrition assistance in Puerto Rico.”

The political momentum for the measure — strongly backed by Trump’s allies in Georgia, Florida and North Carolina, among other states — has only been heightened by massive flooding in Midwestern states such as Nebraska and Iowa, whose nominating caucuses are the first test for Democrats hoping to challenge Trump next year. The GOP measure would make Midwestern states eligible for more aid, and by blocking the bill, Democratic presidential contenders in the Senate are likely to face criticism.

Trump has yet to veto a spending bill despite some tough talk, and he has signed off on $600 million to ease food stamp cuts in Puerto Rico.

“I have taken better care of Puerto Rico than any man ever. We have $91 billion going to Puerto Rico. We have $29 billion to Texas and $12 billion to Florida for the hurricane,” Trump said last week. “They have to spend the money wisely. They don’t know how to spend the money and they’re not spending it wisely.”

Trump’s $91 billion estimate, said a White House spokesman, includes about $50 billion in expected future disaster disbursements, along with $41 million that’s already been approved. Actual aid to Puerto Rico has flowed slowly from federal coffers.

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