The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Massive disaster relief bill at risk of stalling as Trump, Democrats fight over help for Puerto Rico

An aerial view of the Amelia neighborhood in the municipality of Catano, east of San Juan, Puerto Rico. The Senate is locked in a partisan standoff over disaster relief funding for the territory.
An aerial view of the Amelia neighborhood in the municipality of Catano, east of San Juan, Puerto Rico. The Senate is locked in a partisan standoff over disaster relief funding for the territory. (Dennis M. Rivera/AP)
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President Trump’s opposition to aid for Puerto Rico has sparked a partisan standoff over a major disaster bill covering much of the United States, threatening to derail the legislation when it faces a critical Senate vote Monday.

The stalemate has caused days of acrimonious finger-pointing on all sides, with no resolution in sight. Now it threatens to indefinitely delay the bill, which provides more than $13 billion in much-needed recovery funds for everything from volcanic eruptions in Hawaii and wildfires in California, to hurricanes in Florida and Georgia and flooding in the Midwest, among other calamities.

“Many states are currently bearing heavy burdens in the wake of powerful natural disasters,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said this week as he urged support for the GOP’s emergency spending bill. “Many communities are still literally underwater.”

But Democrats oppose the GOP legislation, contending that the $600 million it contains for Puerto Rico’s food stamp program ignores broader needs on the island. They are accusing Trump and the GOP of indifference toward Puerto Rico as the territory continues a nearly two-year recovery from Hurricane Maria, arguing the Trump administration has been slow to make funding available.

“The president's refusal to help Americans in Puerto Rico not only delays an important disaster bill that many other states are relying on to speed their recovery efforts, it discriminates against over 3 million Americans who reside in Puerto Rico, and that’s wrong,” said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Republicans, for their part, say Democrats are grandstanding over Puerto Rico and in the process blocking much-needed assistance to the rest of the United States, including the Midwest, where recent flooding ravaged farms and drinking water supplies in Iowa, Nebraska and elsewhere. The issue threatens to become entangled in the 2020 presidential campaign, as Republicans warn of political consequences for Senate Democrats campaigning for president in Iowa if they oppose flood aid the state desperately needs.

And Trump dismisses Democrats’ complaints, arguing that his administration’s support for Puerto Rico has been second to none.

“I’ve taken better care of Puerto Rico than any man ever,” Trump, who has repeatedly argued against increasing aid to the island, said on the White House lawn Thursday as he prepared to depart for a rally in Michigan. “Puerto Rico has been taken care of better by Donald Trump than by any living human being. And I think the people of Puerto Rico understand it.”

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló recently described Trump as a “bully” and threatened during an interview on CNN to punch him in the mouth.

The congressional impasse has already led to cuts of about 25 percent to the food stamp benefits received this month by the 1.3 million Puerto Rico residents — 43 percent of the island’s population — who rely on the program. If Congress does not pass the funding soon, those people will again be forced to survive on 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.

Rosselló is pushing Congress to include in the disaster bill additional federal assistance for reconstruction projects, such as money for debris removal, and other measures that were included in legislation passed by House Democrats in January.

Senate Democrats have embraced the House-passed bill, which includes hundreds of millions of dollars more for Puerto Rico than the Senate GOP version. But Republicans say that given the president’s opposition to additional spending for Puerto Rico, they cannot support additional funding after already persuading him to go along with the $600 million increase for food stamps as the price for passing the much-needed disaster bill, which has languished in one form or another since last year.

The dispute over Puerto Rico came to a head in the Capitol on Tuesday, when Trump joined Senate Republicans for a closed-door lunch, where he railed against additional hurricane funding for the island, contending that it has already received more disaster money than some states.

At the same time, at a private Senate Democratic lunch nearby, Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) was arguing for the need to defend Puerto Rico, saying that if Trump gets away with depriving Puerto Rico of needed money, he could target New York or California next. At the same lunch, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) gave an impassioned speech reminding colleagues that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens who need their support. The senators’ comments were recounted by a person familiar with them who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the private remarks.

Republicans exited their lunch convinced that the president would not agree to any additional money for Puerto Rico. And Democrats exited theirs determined to stand firm in their demands for more. In the days since, no progress has been evident in talks between the two sides. Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) said Thursday the negotiations had stalled.

The dispute has put Senate Democrats who are running for president in a delicate position, as they have to explain to Iowans why they are opposing money for recovery in that state. Asked about the issue as she campaigned in Iowa on Friday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said she hadn’t seen the final text of the bill but that “it’s important to me that we are covering disasters for everyone, including the disasters here in Iowa and Puerto Rico.”

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), also campaigning Friday in Iowa, offered a defense of the Democratic position, while holding out hope that the issue would get resolved in a way that provides the relief needed for the Midwest as well as Puerto Rico.

“I think in the end, the end product will fund both. I think the fight is just over what the numbers are, and I think the Republicans know that,” Klobuchar said. “The idea we cut off Puerto Rico because the president doesn’t like it is pretty outrageous.”

But Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), the state’s former governor, said that his contacts in Puerto Rico would prefer that Congress pass the bill as it exists so that they can get the food stamp help they want without further delay. Of Democrats, Scott said: “This is all politics, them trying to make political points.”

Damian Paletta, Seung Min Kim, David Weigel and Annie Linskey contributed to this report.