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Disaster aid bill at risk of stalling as Trump and Democrats spar over Puerto Rico

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Some residents of Barrio Obrero in San Juan are still trying to recover after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in 2017.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Washington Post

A massive emergency aid bill for victims of hurricanes, wildfires, flooding and other natural disasters was defeated in the Senate on Monday amid a fight between Democrats and President Trump over relief for Puerto Rico.

Senate Democrats opposed the $13.45-billion legislation, saying the $600 million included for Puerto Rico’s food stamp program is inadequate to meet the U.S. territory’s needs as it attempts to recover from Hurricane Maria. The Democrats are embracing a House-passed relief bill containing hundreds of millions of dollars more for Puerto Rico than the GOP version, but it, too, failed to advance Monday as Republicans opposed it.

Trump opposes sending any additional aid to Puerto Rico apart from the food stamp money, funding Republicans convinced him to accept as the price for passing the long-pending disaster bill.

RELATED: Trump complains to senators that Puerto Rico gets too much hurricane relief money »

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The vote on the GOP bill was 44 in favor and 49 against. The House Democratic bill failed on a vote of 48-46. Sixty votes would have been needed for either piece of legislation to advance.

It’s unclear whether Congress and the administration will move forward to revive the emergency package, and the impasse risks indefinitely delaying disaster funding nationwide amid partisan sniping. Support for disaster aid is often bipartisan on Capitol Hill, but the dispute over this legislation has become increasingly bitter, despite the evident need around the country.

Ahead of the vote, Republicans accused Democrats of holding up much-needed aid for a range of disasters, from flooding in the Midwest and tornadoes in the south to volcanic eruptions in Hawaii, so they could use Puerto Rico as a political issue against the president.

“This is no time for our colleagues across the aisle to prioritize a political fight with the president ahead of the urgent needs of communities across our country,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said on the floor of his chamber Monday. “This does not need to be a difficult partisan decision.”

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Trump weighed in on Twitter earlier Monday in support of the legislation, which was authored in part by Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.), one of his closest allies in the Senate.

“Democrats should stop fighting Sen. David Perdue’s disaster relief bill. They are blocking funding and relief for our great farmers and rural America!” Trump wrote.

But Democrats are furious over Trump’s reluctance to send assistance to Puerto Rico, a stance the president has articulated in private meetings with aides and repeated last week in a closed-door lunch with Senate Republicans.

Trump contended in his meeting with Senate Republicans that Puerto Rico has already gotten more disaster relief than many states. He cited a figure of $91 billion in aid, though that sum reflects an estimate of how much funding the island could receive over time and is more than twice as much as federal agencies have actually obligated or approved thus far.

“Republicans must remember that — just as we leave no soldier behind on the battlefield — we help our fellow Americans when there’s a disaster, wherever the disaster strikes,” Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) wrote in an opinion piece published in the New York Daily News over the weekend. “We do not abandon them. Period. The president and Senate Republicans’ actions on Puerto Rico can be described in only two words: cruel and nasty.”

OPINION: Puerto Rico needs more than an AOC-inspired morale boost to recover from its disasters »

Trump said last week that he’s taken better care of Puerto Rico than any human being living. Puerto Rico’s governor, Ricardo Rossello, a Democrat, recently described Trump as a “bully” and threatened during an interview on CNN to punch him in the mouth.

Rossello has publicly called on Congress to approve House Democrats’ version of the bill — although without specifically opposing the Senate GOP version.

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The House Democrats’ bill does not include funding for the historic flooding that swept through Iowa, Nebraska and other Midwestern states in mid-March; that measure was completed and passed in January. That gap has allowed Republicans to argue that their bill, which would make billions of dollars available to the Midwest, is the only piece of legislation that addresses the nation’s disaster needs in their totality.

Democrats, however, say they support adding Midwest flood aid to the House bill, and they tried to offer an amendment to do so Monday but were blocked by Republicans. As a number of Senate Democrats campaigning for president visit Iowa, some Republicans have argued that opposing major disaster aid for the state could be politically risky.

The emergency legislation, which has been pending in one form or another since last year, addresses an array of disasters that have befallen different parts of the nation in the past of couple years, among them: an earthquake in Alaska; volcanoes in Hawaii; California wildfires; last year’s hurricanes that hit North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, Georgia and the central Northern Marianas Islands; the 2017 hurricanes in Puerto Rico; tornadoes in Alabama and Georgia; and flooding in Iowa, Nebraska and other Midwestern states.

The congressional impasse has already led to cuts of about 25% to the food stamp benefits received in March by the 1.3 million Puerto Rico residents — 43% of the island’s population — who rely on the program. If Congress does not pass the funding soon, those people will again have the reduced food stamp allocation.

The island’s government has also had to cut the size of a supplemental cash benefit to the food stamp program that many elderly Puerto Ricans say they use to buy basic necessities, such as detergent and toothpaste.

Rossello says that the food stamp money is critical for Puerto Rico and that other federal assistance is also necessary, such as money for reconstruction projects and debris removal, and other measures that were included in House Democrats’ legislation.

The House-passed legislation also included $849 million in Environmental Protection Agency funding for Puerto Rico, as well as a measure that would ensure FEMA picks up the tab for reconstruction projects on the island, as the federal government did after Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy. In a letter in January, the Trump administration derided the extra EPA funding as “excessive” and worried the FEMA money would go to projects unrelated to the hurricane. It also initially opposed the extension of emergency food stamp aid as “excessive and unnecessary.”

The lack of funding for Puerto Rico comes as the island grapples with a recession that has lasted over a decade and forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee to the states since Hurricane Maria made landfall. Maria caused more than $90 billion in damage to the island and killed thousands of people while knocking out power for many of the island’s residents for months.

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Werner and Stein write for the Washington Post.


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