In late-night tweets Thursday, Trump derided the “BAD DEMOCRAT Disaster Supplemental Bill” and told House Republicans they “must stick together.”
The GOP did not.
Thirty-four Republicans joined all of the chamber’s Democrats to pass the sweeping relief package, 257 to 150. Some of Trump’s most loyal conservative supporters broke with the president, favoring their districts’ needs over the president’s demands. Among them were Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) and lawmakers from Nebraska, Georgia and Texas.
The strong bipartisan vote reflected the anger and frustration of constituents as disaster relief legislation has stalled in Congress for months and Senate Republicans have failed to come up with an alternative package in their negotiations with the White House.
Talks will continue in the Senate next week on a bill that could pass the Republican-led Senate, the Democratic-run House and get Trump’s approval.
The major sticking point for the president is the additional funding Democrats included to help Puerto Rico rebuild after Hurricane Maria severely damaged the island and left an eventual death toll that Puerto Rico puts at around 3,000. The additional funding amounts to more than $3 billion, including $600 million for nutritional assistance.
Amid the delay, new complications have emerged. The White House wants the disaster-relief bill to include $4.5 billion in emergency border spending to be used for humanitarian and security purposes, a proposal many lawmakers oppose.
Separately, the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), and the administration are at odds over the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, which collects fees from users to pay for upgrades at ports. Shelby hopes to include language in the disaster aid bill that would make it easier to spend money in the fund, noting that repairs are badly needed at ports that have been affected by recent hurricanes. But White House officials oppose Shelby’s approach, saying he is just looking for a way to spend more money.
Further complicating the negotiations, Shelby has expressed exasperation with the White House, openly questioning whether acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney is playing a constructive role in talks.
Trump repeatedly has pushed back against giving more money to Puerto Rico, incorrectly stating that the federal government has already allocated $91 billion to help the U.S. territory. It has actually promised about half of that amount and spent only $11 billion.
At a rally this week in the Florida Panhandle, an area hit hard by Hurricane Michael in 2018, Trump falsely suggested that giving more money to Puerto Rico would shrink the pool for other areas that need disaster assistance. In fact, the disaster aid bill would specifically allocate money for each district and project, such as repairing Tyndall Air Force Base, and not force communities to compete for aid.
Senate Republicans have indicated a willingness to support more funding for Puerto Rico, but it is unclear whether Trump would agree.
Rep. Nydia M. Velázquez (D-N.Y.), the first Puerto Rican woman to be elected to Congress, said in a floor speech that denying aid to those suffering in Puerto Rico is immoral and against American values.
“I pray, pray this bill, which rightfully assists so many other parts of the union, of our nation, will motivate the Senate at last to act and the president to sign this badly needed aid into law,” Velázquez said. “This is a matter of life and death for so many in Puerto Rico.”
Some House Republicans said they voted against the bill because it does not include border funding.
“This bill does nothing to address this crisis,” said Rep. Kay Granger (R-Tex.). “We have no choice but to work together on this issue. . . . Unfortunately, I have to oppose this bill as it currently stands.”
Other Republicans, mostly representing areas affected by natural disasters, voted to advance the bill.
Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.), whose state experienced severe flooding in March, spoke in favor of a bipartisan amendment to add money for watershed protection and then voted for the underlying bill.
“Our communities are getting back on their feet, but we need this program quickly to address serious and long-term damages to the infrastructure and our land,” he said.
Fortenberry and King were joined by Republican conservatives including Reps. Dan Crenshaw (Tex.), Michael McCaul (Tex.), Doug LaMalfa (Calif.) and Earl L. “Buddy” Carter (Ga.).
Dismissing the rebuke, Trump tweeted Friday afternoon, “Great Republican vote today on Disaster Relief Bill. We will now work out a bipartisan solution that gets relief for our great States and Farmers. Thank you to all. Get me a Bill that I can quickly sign!”
Republican leaders in the House tried to derail the bill by asking at the last minute to add money to care for migrant children who cross the border unaccompanied. Democrats batted it down as an unserious effort to help such children.
“You want to know about unaccompanied kids?” asked Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.). “You should have cared for them last year and every day since,” she said, referring to the White House policy last year that resulted in the separation of children from their parents at the southern border.
The House bill is a revised version of one passed in January that was not taken up by the Senate, over objections to the additional Puerto Rico aid.
“We can’t let partisan politics stall this crucial bill, and we must not turn our backs on our communities when they’re recovering from devastating damages,” said Rep. Cindy Axne (D-Iowa). “That’s not who we are as Iowans, and that’s not who we are as Americans.”