McConnell caught between Trump, GOP on disaster relief

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is being squeezed between President Trump and anxious members of his Republican conference on a disaster relief bill that has stalled over the charged issue of assistance for Puerto Rico.

Trump spent part of a meeting with Senate Republicans last week railing against what he sees as Puerto Rico consuming more than its fair share of disaster relief money. The president made clear to GOP leaders that he opposes sending more money to the storm-ravaged island, displaying a visual aid to make the argument that Puerto Rico is sucking needed resources away from other states.

{mosads}On Tuesday, he slammed the island’s local leaders as “grossly incompetent.”

“Puerto Rico got far more money than Texas [and] Florida combined, yet their government can’t do anything right, the place is a mess — nothing works,” he tweeted this week.

Democrats, however, won’t let a Republican-drafted disaster relief bill pass without extra money for Puerto Rico and know they have leverage because some of the states in most dire need of relief — Georgia, Iowa, Florida and Nebraska — have all-Republican Senate delegations.

It would also provide money to rebuild military bases — Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune and Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point — in North Carolina, the home state of two GOP senators, including Sen. Thom Tillis (N.C.), who is facing a tough reelection race next year.

The GOP bill includes more than $3 billion for crop losses in these agriculture-heavy states and includes special language to help pecan growers in Georgia, who are on the brink of default and need federal help immediately.

{mosads}Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) has pressed McConnell directly to get the bill passed as soon as possible.

“Oh yeah, I’ve talked to him,” Isakson said. “I told him it’s the most important thing here, period.”

Isakson warned if the relief doesn’t get to Georgia in 10 days, “some of the farmers are going to lose their farms or go into serious debt because the banks can’t wait on them any longer to pay off their debts.”

“If we go past the middle of this month, it’s over,” he added. Congress will be in session next week but is scheduled to be out for the following two weeks. 

McConnell is in a tough spot. The most likely way to get disaster relief to Georgia and other states this month would be to cut a deal with Democrats to increase assistance for Puerto Rico. But doing so would be seen as undercutting Trump. McConnell, who faces reelection in 2020, has one of the lowest home-state approval ratings of any senators and needs the president’s support.

A Republican member of the Senate Appropriations Committee said colleagues from states that have suffered devastating crop losses are getting nervous as the fight over Puerto Rico between Trump and Democrats threatens to drag out for weeks.

“There’s a lot of money in the disaster relief budget right now but the Georgia, Nebraska and Iowa folks are extremely concerned,” said the lawmaker, who requested anonymity.

The Republican bill would also provide help to the victims of wildfires in the blue state of California.

McConnell on Tuesday said he will continue to negotiate because “no action is not an option.”

A senior Republican aide said the pressure is on Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) to explain why Democrats are holding up a bill that Trump has said he would sign into law.

The aide noted it includes $600 million in nutrition assistance for Puerto Rico.

Democrats, however, say that’s grossly inadequate.

“We understand the devastation in Puerto Rico and there are no excuses left. It’s just to say we’re not going to help them, we’ll help other victims,” said Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.).

Democrats think time is on their side as Republicans from farm states are under growing pressure to deliver federal aid as soon as possible.

“Make no mistake — we reached this impasse because the president has said for himself he opposes help for Puerto Rico. And Republicans follow along,” Schumer said on the Senate floor.

Schumer says Democrats are willing to provide funding for Republican Midwestern states.

He and Sen. Patrick Leahy (Vt.), the top-ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, offered an amendment Tuesday that would have increased funding for Midwestern farm states as well as for Puerto Rico.

“Democrats support without objection funding for all regions of the United States affected by natural disaster. That is any state or territory that need to rebuild,” Schumer said on the floor.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), who is centrally involved in the talks, initially told reporters that he thought bolstering funds for damage caused by tornadoes in the Southeast and flooding in the Midwest would be the key to getting a deal.

But White House officials later told him that the proposal would not fly with Trump, who is staunchly opposed to more money for Puerto Rico.

“The president said he wouldn’t do that,” Shelby said. “Until something breaks, we’re at an impasse.”

He described the negotiations are now “stalled” and said Trump “hasn’t yet” agreed to any more money for Puerto Rico.

Some Democrats think Trump wants to punish San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, whom he has called “crazed and incompetent.”

Cruz has called Trump’s treatment of Puerto Rico “vindictive” and suggested on MSNBC that the president might be lashing out because a golf course he once had on the island went bankrupt.

One Democratic senator speaking on background said Trump may be angry that the mayor has called him out publicly while a senior Democratic aide said Cruz’s public feud with the president “isn’t helping.”

Shelby and Leahy had a conversation on the Senate floor Wednesday afternoon but declined to say whether any progress had been made.

Republicans warn that Democrats running for president will pay a political price if they continue to support the Democratic blockade of the GOP’s disaster relief bill because Iowa, the nation’s first caucus state in 2020, would be a major beneficiary.

“A number of my Democratic colleagues have been finding their way all across Iowa, telling Iowans how important they are to them as the presidential caucuses are nearing and yet they voted to block the very funding that would help these families out,” said Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa).

“I am disappointed in the partisan politics that are being played with the livelihoods of the folks back home in Iowa and all across the Midwest,” she added.

The attempt to pressure Democrats running for the White House, however, doesn’t appear to be having much effect. All of them voted Monday against the Republican disaster relief package.

“I worry about [Republicans] trying to pit one American against another. We can do this all. There’s an urgent need in Iowa, I’ve seen it with my own eyes, and I’m going to fight hard to make sure Iowans get funded. I don’t think the political games we’re seeing right now are becoming of a nation,” said Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), a White House hopeful.

Tags Charles Schumer Cory Booker Dick Durbin Donald Trump Johnny Isakson Joni Ernst Mitch McConnell Patrick Leahy Richard Shelby Thom Tillis
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