The House is set to vote Thursday on a $36.5 billion disaster aid package that includes provisions to avert a potential cash crisis in Puerto Rico prompted by Hurricane Maria.
Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló warned congressional leaders over the weekend that the U.S. territory he leads is "on the brink of a massive liquidity crisis that will intensify in the immediate future." Hurricane damage has inhibited the island's ability to collect local taxes, and the government there is unable to borrow in the credit markets because of its already unmanageable debt load.
Draft legislation released late Tuesday allows up to $4.9 billion in direct loans to local governments in a bid to ease Puerto Rico's crunch. Without intervention, the territory may not be able to make its payroll or pay vendors by the end of the month.
The money would be drawn from a larger pool of $18.7 billion that would be appropriated for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Disaster Relief Fund — the agency’s main mechanism for addressing the aftermath of not only Hurricane Maria but also hurricanes Harvey and Irma, which caused billions of dollars worth of damage in Louisiana, Florida and Texas.
Jenniffer González-Colón (R), Puerto Rico’s nonvoting member of the House, called on her colleagues Wednesday to quickly deliver the aid.
“It’s not easy when you’re used to living an American way of life, and then somebody tells you that you’re going to be without power for six or eight months,” she said. “It’s not easy when you . . . see the suffering of the people without food, without water, and actually living in a humanitarian crisis. We never expected that to happen to us.”
The bill also would forgive $16 billion in debt owed by the National Flood Insurance Program to the U.S. Treasury, giving that program the ability to pay claims to hurricane victims without interruption in the coming months. The bill does not include a suite of controversial reforms to the program that the White House had requested alongside the debt relief.
An additional $576.5 million is appropriated in the draft bill for wildfire management efforts in response to a surge in major fires across the American West.
Together, the request goes beyond the $29 billion request initially made by the White House last week. Congress previously provided $15.2 billion in disaster aid in September, and leaders on Capitol Hill have indicated that more will be on the way after the bill passes.
“These funds are vital right now, in the near term, to get the aid where it is needed most,” House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.) said in a statement.
The bill is expected to pass Thursday through fast-track procedures that require a two-thirds majority.
Democrats and most Republicans indicated they would support the bill, but a handful of GOP conservatives said they were frustrated that the bill did not include the flood insurance reforms or spending offsets that would mitigate the impact of the new spending on the federal budget deficit.
“You tell me how that makes sense with a $20 trillion debt,” said Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), who said he plans to vote against the bill.
But, as with the earlier installment of disaster funding, any gripes were subdued by pleas from lawmakers — many of them conservative Republicans — representing the affected regions.
“You’ve got to be careful not to turn this into a Christmas tree,” said Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Tex.), whose district saw wind and flood damage from Harvey. “But I think the American people demand that Congress have a big heart and keep their promises to the people who were struck by a disaster.”
The Senate is on recess this week and is expected to take up any House-passed legislation once it returns next week.