by Erik Wasson
Senate Democrats blocked a $13.5 billion Republican disaster aid bill, contending it lacks enough aid for Puerto Rico, leaving the Senate without an immediate path forward to provide relief for areas hit by recent Midwest floods, Hurricanes Florence and Michael, and California wildfires.
The aid package, amended last week by Republican Richard Shelby of Alabama, would give Puerto Rico $600 million in nutrition assistance, but it doesn’t contain the same funds the House authorized to bolster flood protection and repair the electrical grid. The Senate failed to advance its version of the bill Monday on a 44-49 vote.
Senators then voted on the House version, which was blocked by Republicans on a 46-48 vote.
Second-ranking Senate Republican John Thune said he expects Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer “will sit down and try to figure out a path forward.” Republicans say the aid package should be confined to 2018 and 2019 disasters while leaving recovery for Hurricane Maria that hit Puerto Rico in 2017 to be sorted out another time. Given President Donald Trump’s opposition to any more aid for the island, Republicans say the $600 million for nutrition already represents a compromise.
McConnell said the House version would be vetoed by the president, so Senate Democrats should accept the Republican offer. He accused Democrats of holding up relief for other disasters, including Midwestern states hit by floods last month.
“Chairman Shelby’s amendment is the only game in town,” McConnell said on the Senate floor ahead of the vote. "This is no time for my colleagues across the aisle to prioritize a political fight with the president ahead of the urgent needs of communities across America.”
Trump admonished Democrats on Twitter for “fighting” the disaster relief bill, which was originally sponsored by Georgia Senator David Perdue.
Monday’s standoff came after Trump told Senate Republicans last week at a private lunch that Puerto Rico squandered previous disaster assistance and should receive no more, according to lawmakers present at the meeting. He argued that the island is using funds to pay off its debts, a charge that Puerto Rican officials deny.
Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, the top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, said Trump was blaming Puerto Rico for failing to spend money that his own administration was refusing to turn over to the island.
"This administration cannot simultaneously hold up recovery dollars for Puerto Rico, and then point to Puerto Rico’s failure to spend it as an excuse not to provide additional assistance," Leahy said on the Senate floor.
Leahy previously offered an amendment to the disaster bill to speed the distribution of Community Development Block grant funding already appropriated by Congress, but McConnell blocked that provision.
In a New York Daily News opinion essay Monday, Schumer said relief for Puerto Rico shouldn’t be “locked away in the U.S. Treasury because of bureaucratic red tape.” He compared Congress’s response after hurricane devastation on the island to the way lawmakers dealt with “less impactful events” on the mainland.
"Senate 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," he said.
Even if more money is appropriated, there’s no guarantee it will arrive in time to address the island’s needs. Since the initial emergency rescue, local authorities say money has arrived slowly for permanent reconstruction to pre-storm levels, in large part because federal agencies have different rules for the commonwealth.
Puerto Rican officials have complained of difficulty in getting federal approval of projects before funds could flow. An agreement last month between the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the island is meant to address those concerns by giving the island more control over the process.
As of March 25, FEMA had obligated $375.6 million for what it calls "permanent work" -- restoring infrastructure and facilities to pre-disaster levels. Of that, only $35 million has been provided.
--With assistance from Jonathan Levin and Laura Litvan.
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