Senate Republicans on Tuesday proposed giving Puerto Rico easier access to hurricane relief funds, as part of a new offer to Democrats aimed at breaking a standoff over a massive disaster aid bill.
The GOP offer does not contain new expenditures for Puerto Rico, something President Trump has opposed. But it does aim to free up access to hundreds of millions of dollars Congress has appropriated, money that Puerto Rico has had trouble getting the administration to release.
The offer also includes new oversight and restrictions on the use of the money, something that the White House has pushed for as officials search for a deal that Trump would find acceptable despite his oft-stated reluctance to send additional disaster funds to Puerto Rico.
The president’s stance on Puerto Rico has stalled a $13 billion-plus disaster assistance bill for months, even as states from the West to the Midwest to the South plead for relief in the wake of natural disasters.
“We’ve made another offer, a pretty good one,” Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) told reporters late Tuesday.
Shelby said the offer does not contain new money for Puerto Rico “in totality, but we hope it would facilitate their access to money that’s available.”
An earlier Senate GOP disaster aid bill included $600 million for Puerto Rico’s food stamp program, which has been forced to slash assistance to residents because of funding shortfalls. However, Democrats insisted much more money was needed to help Puerto Rico’s slow recovery from Hurricane Maria, which left thousands dead and devastated infrastructure on the island in 2017.
Shelby met Tuesday evening with Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.), the top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, to discuss the offer. A Leahy spokesman did not respond to a request for comment, and it was far from clear whether the offer would prove acceptable to Democrats.
It was also uncertain whether Trump would embrace Shelby’s offer. An administration official said the White House has not seen the language or endorsed it, but that it appears to track with discussions they have been having with Hill Republicans. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing negotiations.
Shelby declined to reveal details of his offer. But in the past, officials have discussed provisions that could speed access to more than $10 billion in Community Development Block Grants for Puerto Rico and mainland states, among other things.
The disaster aid bill was also discussed in passing at a White House meeting Tuesday where Trump and Democrats talked about infrastructure, according to lawmakers in attendance. One person familiar with the discussion said that Trump told Democrats: “I’ll stay out of it, just get it done.”
A different official said Trump had asked for Democrats’ help in getting the disaster bill done but that they demurred, saying they were there to talk about infrastructure. Both people spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the private encounter.
Also Tuesday, in a reflection of the urgency felt by a number of Senate Republicans to break the logjam around the bill, GOP senators from Florida, Georgia and North Carolina — along with one Democrat, Doug Jones of Alabama — held a news conference to push for swift action on the legislation. They described devastation to farms and military installations in their states following punishing hurricanes and tornadoes.
“The disaster is Congress’s inability to pass a disaster aid bill,” said Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.).
Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) said he hoped that Congress will have passed the legislation and gotten funds flowing by the time Trump holds a rally next week in Panama City, Fla., an area of the Panhandle that was hit hard by Hurricane Michael and is still rebuilding.
House Democrats plan to pass their own new version of the disaster legislation next week, which at $17.2 billion has a higher price tag than the Senate GOP bill and hundreds of millions of dollars more for Puerto Rico.