Disaster relief package remains stalled in Congress
President Donald Trump has made clear that he does not want to spend more money on Puerto Rico — and Democrats won’t agree to a massive bill providing relief for those affected by hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, and fires without it.
The deadlock has only become clearer in the days since Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer saw their own bills fail to pass on Tuesday, as Trump continued to criticize Puerto Rico and its handling of hurricanes Maria and Irma since they devastated the US territory in 2017.
“I’m not sure anybody gains by a protracted standoff where both sides are pointing fingers,” said Sen. John Thune, the Republican Whip, earlier this week. “I hope that Schumer and McConnell can sit down and come up with a path forward.”
But the White House escalated its attacks on Puerto Rico this week. On Monday, Trump called San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz “crazed.” (Cruz responded on CNN, “The President lives in an alternative world where he tries to pin people against one another.”) On Tuesday, Trump called Puerto Rico’s politicians “grossly incompetent,” who “spend the money foolishly or corruptly.” And on Thursday, the White House put out a “fact sheet” describing Puerto Rico’s “extensive history of mismanagement and corruption” going back to 1999.
“Congress does not need to appropriate more funds for the recovery effort in Puerto Rico,” stated the White House paper, arguing that the territory has not spent billions of dollars the federal government has already allocated.
Republicans on Capitol Hill have not taken such a hard line.
“I don’t want to shortchange Puerto Rico,” said Sen. John Kennedy, Republican of Louisiana. “But in the meantime, we have other states that need help and I’d like to see us go ahead and help everybody.”
The GOP legislation authored by Senate Appropriations Committee chairman Richard Shelby would’ve spent roughly $13.5 billion for rebuilding and recovery from natural disasters. The legislation also included $600 million to pay for nutrition assistance for Puerto Rico, which Gov. Ricardo Rosselló requested in November to protect the food stamp benefits of more than a million people.
The legislation was aimed at helping more than just the people of Puerto Rico. Sen. Joni Ernst, Republican of Iowa, said that the handful of Democratic senators running for president should’ve voted for the GOP bill to provide aid to the flood-ravaged parts of her state.
“A number of my Democratic colleagues have been finding their way all across Iowa, telling Iowans how important they are to them as the presidential caucuses are nearing,” Ernst said, according to the Omaha World-Herald. “And yet they voted to block the very funding that would help these families out.”
In voting against the bill, Democrats argued that the GOP relief effort provided insufficient funding for Puerto Rico because it fails to include a variety of measures that were part of the roughly $14.2 billion relief package passed by Democrats who control the House in January. Those measures include funds that could be used by Puerto Rico to rebuild water systems and other infrastructure projects.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, the top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, has since offered to add a couple billions dollars for other disasters, including tornadoes that have hit the southeastern United States and flooding in the Midwest, to satisfy Republican concerns.
“Our opinion is that it is clear that the President is holding disaster aid to all American communities hostage over a petty, political grudge with the American citizens of Puerto Rico,” said Leahy spokesman Jay Tilton.