The fight between President Trump and Democrats over money for Puerto Rico has left a major disaster aid bill languishing on Capitol Hill, with lawmakers preparing to head home for a two-week recess with no breakthrough in sight.
The stalemate has produced a bitter round of partisan finger-pointing in the Senate in recent days, as Republicans accuse Democrats of playing politics on the legislation, and Democrats criticizing the GOP for following Trump’s lead and holding out against additional spending for Puerto Rico’s slow recovery from Hurricane Maria.
“The bottom line is very, very simple. The aid we seek is what Americans have always done when there’s a disaster. We all come together and aid those areas,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Wednesday. “It’s bewildering that Republican colleagues have caved to President Trump’s what can be called a temper tantrum.”
Republicans from hard-hit areas like the flooded Midwest and the storm-ravaged South have grown increasingly frustrated with the Democrats’ stance. They contend that they’ve made reasonable offers to Democrats that the Democrats rejected.
“It’s frustrating. It’s mind-boggling,” Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) told reporters Wednesday. “I think there’s too much politics involved in the quest to help people that suffered, not just in Puerto Rico but a lot of states. We need to do it. We should have done this six weeks ago.”
At stake is a sweeping $13.45 billion disaster aid package that would send money all over the nation, from California to Hawaii to Alaska to the Midwest and the South. The bill addresses damage from hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, flooding and other natural disasters, and includes relief for farmers, assistance for veterans’ health facilities, money to restore highways and numerous other provisions.
The legislation also contains $600 million for Puerto Rico’s food stamp program, money the Trump administration initially opposed, but ultimately agreed to at the urging of Republican senators as the price for passing the larger bill.
Trump has complained repeatedly about Puerto Rico both publicly and privately, accusing island leaders of incompetence and mismanagement and questioning why any more money should be sent to the U.S. territory. Republicans think Trump will not agree to anything more than the $600 million already in the GOP bill, and that Democrats need to accept that level of funding and make a deal.
But Democrats contend that hundreds of millions of dollars more are required for Puerto Rico’s other needs, such as reconstruction projects and repairs to schools and hospitals. They say recent GOP offers did not include new money for Puerto Rico, and therefore were non-starters.
The disagreement has left the two sides at loggerheads with the path forward unclear, even as communities all over the United States struggle to recover from various calamities.
“There are still a number of communities in Iowa and across the Midwest that remain underwater with our flooding,” said Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa). “We don’t want to see this as a political football.”
The flooding in Iowa has brought an immediate political dimension to the standoff, as Ernst and Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) have questioned how Senate Democrats who are running for president can campaign in Iowa while simultaneously opposing an aid bill that helps the state. That political argument may be amplified over the coming weeks as lawmakers return to their home states, meet with constituents and hold public events.
House Democrats unveiled a new disaster aid bill of their own this week, with a larger price tag — $17.2 billion — than the Senate GOP version, including more generous aid for Puerto Rico. But Republicans say the Democratic bill includes unacceptable provisions, including new language that would prevent military construction or defense funds from being spent for Trump’s border wall. Democrats added that language as a response to Trump’s declaration of a national emergency at the border, a move that allows him to redirect military construction funds to build border barriers.
The House is expected to pass their legislation after returning from the upcoming recess, but that’s unlikely to unlock the stalemate in the Senate.
The arguments over the legislation have grown increasingly personal, with Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) accusing Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) of bringing up Isakson’s vote against relief for Hurricane Sandy in 2012 in discussion about the current bill.
“We had a few words,” Isakson said.
Leahy, the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, said Wednesday that he was simply trying to explain to Isakson that Georgia was covered in a new version of the bill that Leahy had tried to advance.
“I have never voted against another state,” Leahy said, adding: “I love Senator Isakson, he’s a dear, dear friend.”
Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.