Disaster aid stalls in Senate amid fight over Puerto Rico

WASHINGTON (AP) — Senate Democrats blocked a Republican disaster aid bill, saying more money is needed to help hurricane-torn Puerto Rico. But President Donald Trump opposes additional funding and says the U.S. territory is getting more disaster money than some states.

The move tossed long-sought relief for victims of hurricanes, floods and Western wildfires into limbo and escalated a fight between Democrats and Trump, who said Tuesday that he is the “best thing” that ever happened to Puerto Rico.

Trump claimed additional funding would come at the expense of U.S. farmers and states, and attacked the island’s political leaders, alleging they “only take from USA.” Puerto Rico’s residents are U.S. citizens.

White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said it was “ridiculous” to question Trump’s commitment to the people of Puerto Rico, but called the island “that country” in an interview with MSNBC. Gidley claimed the error was “a mistake.”

Monday’s 44-49 vote fell short of a majority, much less the 60 votes required to overcome a Democratic filibuster, sending GOP leaders back to the drawing board and seeming 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.

“Our work on this subject is far from finished,” Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said on Tuesday.

Trump allies such as Sens. David Perdue, R-Ga., and Rick Scott, R-Fla., are among the strongest backers of the legislation.

“We will get this done eventually,” Perdue said, promising relief to struggling farmers in his state.

The path forward is unclear, but a leading option is for the Senate to pass a 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.

Democrats say Trump has been slow to release already appropriated funding for Puerto Rico and has shown little urgency in helping the island. Trump criticized 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 complained in a pair of tweets Tuesday about the island’s leadership and said $91 billion destined for Puerto Rico is “more money than has ever been gotten for a hurricane before, & all their local politicians do is complain & ask for more money.”

He said the politicians there are “grossly incompetent, spend the money foolishly or corruptly, & only take from USA.”

“The best thing that ever happened to Puerto Rico is President Donald J. Trump,” the president continued. “So many wonderful people, but with such bad Island leadership and with so much money wasted. Cannot continue to hurt our Farmers and States with these massive payments, and so little appreciation!”

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello responded with his own tweets, stating in part, “Mr. President, this ‘place’ you refer to, #PuertoRico, is home to over three million proud Americans that are still recovering from the storm and in need of federal assistance. We are not your adversaries, we are your citizens.”

Rossello also asked that all senators approve the disaster aid bill and disputed Trump’s numbers, claiming that the Federal Emergency Management Agency has approved only $300 million in permanent work projects, not $91 billion.

The $13.5 billion Senate measure mostly mirrors a $14.2 billion measure the House passed 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.

McConnell said the Senate measure is the fastest way to get aid to the South and the Midwest, along with nutrition aid to Puerto Rico, where food stamp benefits have already been cut.

“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.”

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.

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