Senators say they've reached deal on Puerto Rico aid

Senators say they've reached deal on Puerto Rico aid
© Greg Nash

Republican and Democratic senators on Monday said they've reached an agreement on aid for Puerto Rico, moving closer to a deal on a stalled disaster relief package. 

But Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard ShelbyRichard Craig ShelbyGOP nervous that border wall fight could prompt year-end shutdown GOP nervous that border wall fight could prompt year-end shutdown On The Money: Pelosi says no debt ceiling hike until deal on spending caps | McConnell pressures White House to strike budget deal | Warren bill would wipe out billions in student debt | Senate passes IRS reform bill MORE (R-Ala.) said it was not yet clear whether President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump cites tax cuts over judges as having biggest impact of his presidency Trump cites tax cuts over judges as having biggest impact of his presidency Ocasio-Cortez claps back at Trump after he cites her in tweet rejecting impeachment MORE would sign on to the Puerto Rico agreement. Trump had criticized Puerto Rico’s use of previous aid, and his opposition was a major sticking point in the talks.

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Shelby met with Trump and other White House officials on Monday. They talked about disaster aid and the need to raise the budget caps and avoid across-the-board cuts known as sequestration. 

Asked if Trump agreed to support whatever agreement they came up with, Shelby added, “I don’t believe he said that.”

"The president didn't say that. That question was not asked. He just wanted to know how close we were," Shelby said in response to a question about whether the president would support additional Puerto Rico aid.

Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerElection security bills face GOP buzzsaw Election security bills face GOP buzzsaw US women's soccer team reignites equal pay push MORE (D-N.Y.) said the senators had “come to a conclusion” on negotiations for recovery assistance for the island territory.

"I'm glad our Republican friends have finally seen the light and not treated Puerto Rico unfairly so we can move forward with all disaster relief," Schumer said from the Senate floor. 

A spokesman for Schumer declined to comment beyond the Senate Democratic leader’s floor remarks.

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An aide to Shelby confirmed to reporters that they had wrapped up the Puerto Rico negotiations. 

The initial Senate GOP bill included $600 million in food stamp aid, but Democrats argued that fell far short and wanted to amend it to include a requirement for the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to release block grant funding and money to help Puerto Rico repair damaged water systems.

A subsequent GOP offer included an additional $300 million in new HUD rebuilding assistance for Puerto Rico. Asked if the amount of new funding in the final agreement was in line with that amount or if it was more, Shelby declined to comment but indicated there was new money for the island territory in addition to facilitating Puerto Rico's ability to get already appropriated money.
 
"It would streamline the accessibility to money. A lot of it was there. It would be a little more money, but there's a lot of money there that they could access for infrastructure and everything else," Shelby said.

Democrats had previously indicated that they thought they were making progress on Puerto Rico negotiations after Republicans made a new offer.

Schumer told reporters last week that Republicans had moved "strongly in our direction" on help for Puerto Rico. House Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerThe case for congressional pay raises Approve USMCA before it's too late Lawmakers push to permanently ban automatic pay raises for members of Congress MORE (D-Md.) also described Republicans last week as showing "flexibility" on the issue. 

The Senate's inaction in recent weeks comes after the House passed its own disaster relief bill. Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGOP nervous that border wall fight could prompt year-end shutdown GOP nervous that border wall fight could prompt year-end shutdown Jon Stewart slams McConnell over 9/11 victim fund MORE (R-Ky.) warned last week that he was going to force a vote on a disaster relief bill before lawmakers left for the Memorial Day recess regardless of whether negotiators are able to reach a deal.

Shelby on Monday described the talks as "closer than we've ever been" and added that "there are always a few things that pop up that can complicate things, but let's hope not."

Republicans had previously warned that Trump wouldn't sign a bill with additional money for Puerto Rico, but negotiators indicated last week that they thought he would ultimately support the package they are negotiating. Shelby, asked about the Puerto Rico provision on Thursday, said he thought the White House would support what they had at that point.

Sen. Johnny IsaksonJohn (Johnny) Hardy IsaksonSenate passes disaster aid bill after deal with Trump GOP senators work to get Trump on board with new disaster aid package Senators say they've reached deal on Puerto Rico aid MORE (R-Ga.), whose state has been hit hard by recent storms, indicated that the Puerto Rico issue was resolved and negotiators had moved on to other snags. 

"We're at the stage of negotiations now where you have new sticking points that nobody ever talked about before because people are running out of things to pick on each other about," Isakson told a Georgia radio station when asked if Puerto Rico was still a sticking point.

Two other issues had emerged as 11th-hour roadblocks to a potential deal: the White House's $4.5 billion in emergency border money and harbor maintenance funding, an issue that is important to Shelby. The GOP senator told reporters Monday that the harbor money would not be in the disaster aid package but that Trump had pledged to help him find another legislative vehicle for the funding.

Both sides also appeared to be moving closer to an agreement on the border, after Democrats made an offer late last week that included billions in humanitarian aid related to the U.S.-Mexico border.

"The president sent over a proposal on the border, and we have sent back a counterproposal with many of the things that he included, not all that he included — some are objectionable," Schumer said on Monday. "That is extraneous, but we may be able to come to an agreement on that."

Updated at 6:56 p.m.