WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats have blocked a Republican disaster aid bill, saying it doesn’t do enough to help hurricane-torn Puerto Rico. The move tossed long-sought relief for victims of hurricanes, floods and Western wildfires into limbo.
The vote escalated a fight between Democrats and President Donald Trump, who opposes further rebuilding aid for the U.S. island territory, which was slammed by back-to-back hurricanes in 2017. Trump said Tuesday that he is the “best thing” that has ever happened to Puerto Rico, and claimed that additional funding for the island would come at the expense of U.S. farmers and states.
Monday’s 44-49 vote fell short of a majority, much less the 60 votes required to overcome a Democratic filibuster. It sent GOP leaders back to the drawing board but seemed unlikely to kill disaster aid efforts outright, since there is much political support to send aid to Southern farmers, wildfire-ravaged California towns and Midwestern flood victims.
Trump allies such as Sens. David Perdue, R-Ga., and Rick Scott, R-Fla., are among the strongest backers of the legislation, which has faced significant delays.
“We will get this done eventually,” Perdue said, promising relief to struggling farmers in his state. The path forward is not clear, but a leading option is for the Senate to pass a more narrowly drawn bill simply to get the issue into a House-Senate conference committee. House Democrats insist the talks must produce a final measure with help for Puerto Rico.
The amount of money in dispute is relatively small, but Trump feels antipathy toward Puerto Rico’s government and Senate Republicans backed him up — for now — in denying Democratic demands for more aid to rebuild its badly damaged water systems and to ease the requirement that Puerto Rico financially match a portion of the federal government’s aid contribution.
Democrats say Trump has been slow to release already appropriated funding for Puerto Rico and has shown little urgency in helping the island. Trump poor-mouthed the island’s government at a meeting with Senate Republicans last week and suggested Puerto Rico has gotten too much disaster help compared with states such as Texas, using inflated numbers to make his case.
“Just as we leave no soldier behind on the battlefield, we help our fellow Americans when there’s a disaster, wherever the disaster strikes. We do not abandon them. Period,” said Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.
In a pair of tweets Tuesday, Trump complained about the island’s elected leadership and said $91 billion destined for Puerto Rico for the hurricanes is “more money than has ever been gotten for a hurricane before, & all their local politicians do is complain & ask for more money. The pols are grossly incompetent, spend the money foolishly or corruptly, & only take from USA.”
“The best thing that ever happened to Puerto Rico is President Donald J. Trump,” he continued. “So many wonderful people, but with such bad Island leadership and with so much money wasted. Cannot continue to hurt our Farmers and States with these massive payments, and so little appreciation!”
The president also criticized the island’s government in a series of late-night tweets on Monday.
The $13.5 billion Senate measure mostly mirrors a $14.2 billion measure passed by the House in January, combining aid to Southern farmers, California communities devastated by last summer’s wildfire, and hurricane-hit states such as Florida, Georgia and North Carolina. Hurricane-damaged military bases in Florida and North Carolina would receive rebuilding funds.
Democrats want to add almost $700 million more to unlock further disaster aid for Puerto Rico and several states, including help to rebuild badly damaged water systems. Democrats are also trying to force the administration to release billions of dollars in rebuilding funds that have already been approved.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said the measure is the fastest way to get aid to the hurricane-slammed South and the badly flooded Midwest, along with nutrition aid to Puerto Rico, where food stamp benefits have already been cut.
“It’s our only sure path to making a law with anywhere near the urgency these Americans deserve. It is the only bill on the table with any provision for the Midwest flooding,” McConnell said. “And it’s the only bill on the table that could earn a presidential signature in time to deliver urgent relief on the nutrition assistance in Puerto Rico.”
The political momentum for the measure — strongly backed by Trump’s allies in Georgia, Florida and North Carolina, among other states — has only been heightened by massive flooding in Midwestern states such as Nebraska and Iowa, whose nominating caucuses are the first test for Democrats hoping to challenge Trump next year. The GOP measure would make Midwestern states eligible for more aid, and by blocking the bill, Democratic presidential contenders in the Senate are likely to face criticism.
Trump has yet to veto a spending bill despite some tough talk, and he has signed off on $600 million to ease food stamp cuts in Puerto Rico.
Trump’s $91 billion estimate, said a White House spokesman, includes about $50 billion in expected future disaster disbursements, along with $41 million that’s already been approved. Actual aid to Puerto Rico has flowed slowly from federal coffers.