Puerto Rico fight threatens Senate disaster aid measure

A fight over aid for Puerto Rico is threatening to derail a disaster relief bill, adding a last-minute curveball into the long-stalled emergency funding measure.

The Senate is working its way through a package to provide  recovery dollars for a recent spate of hurricanes, storms and wildfires, but they’ve yet to clinch a deal on the amount of assistance for Puerto Rico. Lawmakers are navigating several hurdles injecting uncertainty into when, if or how much aid Congress and the administration will be able to agree on.

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The stalemate comes as President TrumpDonald TrumpFormer defense secretary Esper sues Pentagon in memoir dispute Biden celebrates start of Hanukkah Fauci says lies, threats are 'noise' MORE has sparked a political firestorm for criticizing Puerto Rico’s handling of previous disaster funds during a private lunch this week with GOP senators.

“Let me tell you what, Puerto Rico doesn’t have a sterling record, and a lot of states don’t either, but Puerto Rico has not a good record on handling a lot of money … and that’s what the president is raising,” said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard ShelbyRichard Craig ShelbyRepublicans struggle to save funding for Trump's border wall On The Money — Biden sticks with Powell despite pressure Trump seeking to oust Republican Alabama governor over canceled rally: report MORE (R-Ala.) when asked about the president’s comments.

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGraham emerges as go-to ally for Biden's judicial picks This Thanksgiving, skip the political food fights and talk UFOs instead Biden move to tap oil reserves draws GOP pushback MORE (R-S.C.) added that Trump argued that Puerto Rico had gotten more money compared with states like Texas and Florida and his point was “how much money can you absorb?”

“Are we spending the money wisely? I have nothing against helping the people in Puerto Rico. I just want to make sure we’re not just throwing money into the system,” Graham added. “It’s got to pass the smell test.”

Trump has repeatedly criticized Puerto Rico, which was devastated by back-to-back hurricanes in 2017. Puerto Rican Governor Ricardo Rosselló called his latest comments from the GOP lunch “irresponsible, regrettable and, above all, unjustified.”

Trump’s remarks are also raising red flags among Democrats, who are demanding changes to the Senate GOP disaster aid funding bill and are threatening to block it from getting the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster later this week.

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A senior Senate Democratic aide said there were three options that would allow the disaster aid bill to get the 60 votes needed to pass the Senate in the wake of Trump’s comments: pass the House-passed emergency supplemental, amend the GOP proposal to include priorities from Democrats, or pass a shell bill to allow for the House and Senate to kick the issue to a conference committee.

Sen. Dick DurbinDick DurbinGraham emerges as go-to ally for Biden's judicial picks 91 House Dems call on Senate to expand immigration protections in Biden spending bill Bipartisan senators press FBI, inspector general for changes following Nassar case MORE (Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat, said the Puerto Rico provisions were a “sticking point” on the negotiations over the broader disaster relief bill.

Asked if Democrats would vote against the legislation if the amount of aid for Puerto Rico is reduced compared to the House bill, Durbin responded, “Many of us will.”

The House passed a disaster recovery bill earlier this year, which Senate Republicans are using as a shell for the chamber’s fight. They are expected to swap in a proposal from Shelby before a final vote. Shelby’s $13.45 billion disaster relief proposal includes $600 million for food stamp aid in Puerto Rico.

But Democrats argue that falls short. Sen. Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahyThe Hill's Morning Report - Ins and outs: Powell renominated at Fed, Parnell drops Senate bid On The Money — Biden sticks with Powell despite pressure Welch to seek Senate seat in Vermont MORE (Vt.), the top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, introduced an amendment to Shelby’s disaster relief bill to include a handful of additional provisions, including requiring the Department of Housing and Urban Development to release block-grant funding and money to help Puerto Rico repair damaged water systems.

“Unfortunately, it appears that the president will not accept even this reasonable offer. Instead, he will endanger the entire disaster package because he wants to pick winners and losers. He wants to decide who gets assistance in the wake of disasters based on his own arbitrary standards and political grudges. This is unacceptable,” Leahy said during a Senate floor speech.

Republicans are betting that voting against disaster funding would be politically unpopular enough that they’ll be able to win over enough Democrats to pass the bill.

With a 53-47 majority, if every Republican supported advancing the disaster relief package they would still need to win over seven Democrats. Complicating their calculations, 10 Republican senators voted against the bill on an initial procedural hurdle, potentially giving Democrats more leverage as leadership tries to pass the bill.

Even if the Republican bill passes the Senate this week, House Democrats are warning they won’t accept the Senate GOP proposal and will force a conference committee, a move that would drag out and potentially stall chances that a disaster funding bill makes it to Trump’s desk. Congress is set to leave town for the two-week Easter recess after April 5.

House Democrats are seizing on a litany of differences between the House bill and the Senate GOP measure arguing that it doesn’t include Medicaid assistance or additional funding for Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories.

“What we’re trying to do is craft a bill that we in the Senate could support, that the House could support and that the president would sign so you’ve got a three-legged stool here,” Shelby said.

Pressed on the fact that Democrats don’t support his proposal, Shelby added: “They want more. So, we’ll see what happens.”