Capitol Hill -- Aid for disaster-ravaged U.S. states and territories stalled in the Senate Monday as the president, backed by Republicans, and Senate Democrats remain locked in a fight over aid to Puerto Rico, hit hard by hurricanes in 2017 and currently out of money for crucial nutrition programs.
Senators voted down a key procedural motion, 44-47, amidst the partisan feud, with no clear strategy ahead for how to pass legislation needed in order to begin negotiations with the House, which passed its own $14.7 billion disaster funding bill in January that contains more aid for Puerto Rico.
The stage for the logjam seemed set after President Donald Trump’s visit to Capitol Hill last week.
In his closed-door lunch with Senate Republicans on Tuesday, the president brought along a chart to show lawmakers – according to three senators in the room. The chart, according to the members, showed some $91 billion in federal funding for Puerto Rico verses a little over $29 billion for Texas, both hit hard by storms, with the president telling Republicans that the island nation had handled the funding poorly.
Trump, afterward, echoed that sentiment to reporters, saying, “They don’t know how to spend the money, and they’re not spending it wisely.”
Democrats have said they want to see the money already appropriated to Puerto Rico released by the federal government, while adding more than $430 million in assistance to the current funding effort. Republicans maintained that Puerto Rico was not spending the money it had been given.
“I disagree with the president who feels somehow that Puerto Ricans aren’t Americans. They are,” Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-V.T., top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, criticized last week and called on the president on Monday night to “stop holding petty grudges.”
While Congress remains deadlocked, Puerto Rico is running out of funding for its nutrition assistance program and its electric grid and water systems are still in disrepair.
“The amendment being considered by the U.S. Senate falls short of addressing the majority of our most pressing needs,” Ricardo Rossello, governor of Puerto Rico, said in a statement over the weekend, requesting more than $540 million in additional disaster aid to what Senate Republicans has in its bill.
“While the $600 million it provides for Puerto Rico’s Nutritional Assistance Program is vital to the well-being of our citizens, it is imperative that our needs be addressed,” Rossello said.
But Senate Majority Mitch McConnell, R-K.Y., called the Republicans' legislation, authored by Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, R-A.L., “the only game in town,” adding, “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.”
“Unlike the underlying House bill, which does not address this year’s disasters, it would provide for a significant down payment on relief and rebuilding in the flood-damaged Midwest,” McConnell said Monday in a Senate floor speech. “The House bill has nothing for the Midwest flooding. So it’s a non-starter.”
“From city to countryside, the entire island has been decimated,” Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., shot back, adding, “The Administration’s response can be summed up in two words: cruel, nasty.”
Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson, whose state of Georgia was hit hard by storms this year, threatening blueberry and pecan crops among others, said, “Democrats shouldn’t hold funding hostage for Puerto Rico,” adding, “We’ve lost our perspective…It’s time for use to do what’s right.”
The president of the non-partisan Farm Bureau, Zippy Duvall, weighed in Monday afternoon, encouraging senators to pass the House measure with the increased funding for Puerto Rico.
“The estimated agriculture losses in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina alone total nearly $5.5 billion,” Duvall said in a statement. “Nebraska, Iowa and Missouri currently estimate losses at more than $3 billion. The full impact for these Midwestern farmers will only increase, however, as the recovery efforts are ongoing and losses continue to be calculated. The agricultural costs were overwhelming—with many farmers suffering near complete losses.”
The effort to pass disaster funding was on schedule to pass last year until President Trump shut the government down over border wall funding.
But while changes in climate and weather patterns – that have delivered a cascading series of disasters across the U.S. – continue to exacerbate the disaster funding problem, the partisan gridlock that has stalled the current measure shows no signs of abating either.