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New Senate GOP offer on disaster aid bill gives $300 million boost to Puerto Rico

Hurricane Maria damaged these roofs in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in 2017. (Carlos Giusti/AP)

Senate Republicans would send $300 million more to Puerto Rico in a new offer aimed at breaking a logjam over a multibillion-dollar disaster relief bill that has stalled for months in a fight over aid to the island.

A key Democrat reacted positively Wednesday, in an optimistic sign for prospects for a deal. But White House officials were still reviewing the proposal, and President Trump, who has resisted sending more money to Puerto Rico, had yet to endorse it.

The proposal from Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) makes several concessions to Democrats’ demands, after months of wrangling over the disaster bill that would send assistance all over the United States and to Puerto Rico as the island continues its recovery from Hurricane Maria.

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Most notably, the offer increases spending for Puerto Rico, the issue that has held up the legislation as Trump has opposed Democratic attempts to make it more generous for the U.S. territory. On top of $600 million that was already included for Puerto Rico’s food stamp program, which has been forced to reduce benefits, $300 million would go to the island in the form of Community Development Block Grant assistance.

Additionally, the offer includes language to speed access to a $16 billion pot of CDBG money already appropriated by Congress, of which $8.3 billion would go to Puerto Rico. The remainder would go to Texas and other states.

The offer includes language to ensure that the money is spent properly and prevent waste, fraud and abuse. The new CDBG money for Puerto Rico could be spent only after certification that most of the money previously received under the program had been used up, and with a plan in place to spend the new funds. Trump has complained of mismanagement by Puerto Rico of aid funds, and such controls are a priority for the White House.

Also, the overall price tag of the bill would increase from $13.5 billion to just more than $17 billion to incorporate a number of changes, including more help for states in the Midwest hit by flooding.

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“We’re trying to work out whatever differences we have. We want to get something the House can go along with, and I’m pretty optimistic that something can happen,” Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.), the top Appropriations Committee Democrat, told reporters after discussing the offer with Shelby. “We’re a lot closer.”

In describing the offer to reporters late Tuesday, Shelby had indicated that it did not include any new money for Puerto Rico. Details described by aides Wednesday, however, make clear that it does. The aides spoke on the condition of anonymity ahead of a public agreement on the legislation.

Even though the White House has yet to endorse the proposal, it appears to represent the most significant movement in some time on the disaster bill. As the legislation has remained mired in political stalemate, Republican senators from states including Iowa, Georgia, North Carolina and Florida have grown increasingly strident in urging that some resolution be found.

All over the country, in those states and others, communities, farms and military installations continue to recover from hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires and other natural disasters that have struck in recent months and years.

“I hope that this will break this logjam. I honestly think both sides are trying right now,” said Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.), who’s been a leader on the issue.

Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) said of the new proposal: “I’m hopeful. It deals with additional resources to Puerto Rico, it deals with making sure the money doesn’t get wasted.”