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 ShelbyMeet Trump's most trusted pollsters Contractors fight for pay from last shutdown — and the next one Trump signs stopgap measure, funding government through November MORE (R-Ala.) said it was not yet clear whether President TrumpDonald John TrumpWHCA calls on Trump to denounce video depicting him shooting media outlets Video of fake Trump shooting members of media shown at his Miami resort: report Trump hits Fox News's Chris Wallace over Ukraine coverage 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 SchumerTrump defends 'crime buster' Giuliani amid reported probe Louisiana voters head to the polls in governor's race as Trump urges GOP support Trump urges Louisiana voters to back GOP in governor's race then 'enjoy the game' 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 HoyerHillicon Valley: Google, Reddit to testify on tech industry protections | Trump joins Amazon-owned Twitch | House to vote on bill to combat foreign interference Overnight Health Care — Presented by Coalition Against Surprise Medical Billing — Judge blocks Trump 'public charge' rule | Appeals court skeptical of Trump arguments for Medicaid work requirements | CDC offers guidance for treating vaping-related cases House to vote this month on legislation to combat foreign interference in elections 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 McConnellFurious Republicans prepare to rebuke Trump on Syria Republicans wrestle with impeachment strategy Mattis warns 'ISIS will resurge' without U.S. pressure on Syria 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 IsaksonJohnny IsaksonJoe Lieberman's son running for Senate in Georgia Poll: Majority of independent voters want GOP to retain control of Senate in 2020 Embracing President Mike Pence might be GOP's best play 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.