Disaster relief talks stalled by Trump feud with Puerto Rico

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Senate negotiators say a deal on disaster relief is unlikely this week as President Trump refuses to agree to more funding for Puerto Rico in the midst of a feud with public officials on the island. 

Trump’s beef with Puerto Rico has put Senate Republicans from Midwestern and Southern states in a tough spot, because they say farmers in their home states need assistance immediately. 

Instead of fast action, however, the standoff is going to stretch into next week. That gives lawmakers only a few days to reach a deal before Congress is scheduled to start a two-week recess on April 15. 

{mosads}“We’re stalled. Now we’re at an impasse,” said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), who is spearheading the negotiations. “The linchpin is Puerto Rico right now.”

Shelby on Thursday objected to compromise legislation proposed by Democrats that would have increased funding for Puerto Rico and included $2.5 billion in new funding for storm-ravaged communities in the Midwest and Southeast.

Democrats saw the effort as a compromise since funding for the states is a GOP priority and Democrats want more money for Puerto Rico. But Trump opposes the effort.

“My Democratic colleagues know that the measure they raised today does not have the president’s support,” Shelby said. 

Trump is digging in his heels amid a heated feud with Puerto Rican officials, in particular San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, whom Trump called “crazed and incompetent” on Tuesday. 

Cruz has responded by calling Trump “vindictive” and speculating he may be mad about a golf course his company managed on the island that went bankrupt. 

Trump tweeted that Puerto Rico has already received $91 billion in hurricane aid, which, a nonpartisan fact-checking website, rated as false. 

A senior administration official, however, explained to the website that Trump was counting the $41 billion that has already been allocated for the island as well as future Federal Emergency Management Agency costs of $50 billion. 

Sen. Patrick Leahy (Vt.), the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, pointed out that of the $3.2 billion in new money added to the revised Democratic proposal, only $462 million went to Puerto Rico in the form of Community Development Block Grants. 

“The rest is for Midwest states, for Florida, for Alabama,” he said, highlighting Shelby’s home state. 

Senate Republicans from Georgia, Nebraska and Iowa, all of which are set to receive money, warn delaying the relief package until next month would be a major disappointment.

“Yes, there’s a time crunch. We need to get it done as soon as possible. We need to have a down payment. My staff worked really hard with the Appropriations Committee staff so we could include disasters from 2019 in order to be able to have those funds available,” said Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.).

“We need to get some aid out there. People all across the state have been traumatized. This has been a huge event to hit Nebraska,” she added, warning that “people will be more stressed” if they have to wait until May.

A Democratic source familiar with the negotiations said the goal now is to reach a deal by next week before Congress leaves for the two-week recess.

“We’re a lot closer than we were a few days ago,” the source said. 

The Democratic source, however, added that Senate Republicans were agitating to get the deal wrapped up before this weekend. 

Shelby on Thursday expressed frustration that the talks weren’t moving more swiftly. 

“Right now we’re at a crawl,” he said. 

Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) said “Iowans are really disappointed” with the slow progress. 

She added that it “would be very unfortunate” if the relief package were stalled until May and warned that Democrats campaigning for president in Iowa “would really hear about it.” 

Centrist Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.), who faces a tough reelection next year and whose home state would benefit from disaster relief assistance, spoke to Trump Wednesday night in hopes of finding a breakthrough. 

“We were just trying to figure out if we could find some common ground on Puerto Rico. That’s the main issue,” Jones said of his chat with Trump. “If we can keep people engaged, I think we’re seeing some movement.”

The Senate hit the impasse Monday when Democrats blocked a Republican-crafted disaster bill that would have provided $13.45 billion in supplemental funding for states hit by tornadoes, floods, hurricanes, wildfires and earthquakes. It also provided $600 million in nutrition assistance for Puerto Rico. 

Republicans in turn blocked a Democratic effort to advance the House-passed disaster relief bill, which would provide $703 million for nutrition and Medicaid assistance for Puerto Rico and other territories, as well as $555 million for social services, mental health and education for dislocated workers. 

Jordain Carney contributed.

Tags Deb Fischer Disaster aid Donald Trump hurricane relief Joni Ernst Patrick Leahy Puerto Rico Richard Shelby
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