Unpacking the spin from Democrats, GOP over which side is blocking hurricane relief for Puerto Rico

In The NewsUnpacking the spin from Democrats, GOP over which side is blocking hurricane relief for Puerto Ricovia Politifact Florida

In The News,  | Quick Take
Apr 1, 2019  | 9 min read | Print Article

This article by Amy Sherman first appeared in Politifact on April 1, 2019

Republican Sen. Rick Scott started a spat with Democratic Minority Leader Chuck Schumer over which party is to blame for not approving disaster aid for Puerto Rico.

“We are so close to getting funding to help FL and PR recover after devastating storms. But the Dems keep holding it up. They need to stop making disaster relief a partisan fight! Let’s get this done NOW!” Scott tweeted March 25.

In subsequent tweets, Scott repeatedly called out Schumer, saying that the Democrats are delaying funding.

“Why are Republicans blocking a simple measure that helps Puerto Rico actually access the recovery aid they need, @SenRickScott? Billions of dollars Congress approved a year ago for disaster recovery remain in the U.S. Treasury—not assisting our fellow Americans in Puerto Rico.”

Scott replied: “When was the last time you were in Puerto Rico, @SenSchumer? (Vacations don’t count). I’ve gone 9 times since Maria and support PR getting the funding they need, including the $600 million in $$ you’re currently blocking. Leaders in PR agree that they need this funding now.”

We found that the two parties can’t seem to agree how much aid is necessary or appropriate, and that difference is slowing down the whole process.

Key takeaways

Democrats in the Senate have been lobbying to pass legislation that helps Puerto Rico, but you wouldn’t get that from Scott’s tweets. The big question: Will the Democrats go along with a GOP measure that has some relief for Puerto Rico, or hold out for more?

While Scott has bashed Democrats for not supporting a version of disaster relief legislation that he co-sponsored, that ignores the other disaster relief bills in the House and Senate that have moved forward. (Also when he broadly criticizes the Democrats, he ignores that one of the eight  senators joining him on his bill is Democrat Doug Jones of Alabama.)

Ironically, in one of Scott’s tweets blaming the Democrats, he linked to anAssociated Press article that said Trump’s commitment to help Puerto Rico is in question, while Republicans and Democrats support moving ahead with aid.

Schumer’s counterpunch also requires further explanation: His criticism focuses on Republicans who haven’t shown interest in a recent amendment by a Democrat to beef up aid to Puerto Rico.

Here’s what both sides are doing

Here’s a quick recap of the legislative activity: Over in the House, on Jan. 16, six Republicans joined the Democrats to pass HR 268, which included $12.1 billion for recovery from wildfires, hurricanes, and other recent natural disasters. The legislation included $600 million for Puerto Rico in disaster nutrition assistance.

That same day, the Trump administration wrote a letter calling $600 million for food funding for Puerto Rico “excessive and unnecessary.”

The Republicans wrote their own version of a bill for $12.7 billion for disaster reliefin January, amid the negotiations to end the federal government shutdown, but it didn’t move forward.

Ultimately the budget deal Trump signed in February to end the shutdown included no disaster relief.

Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., then wrote a bill cosponsored by Scott that included the $600 million for food for Puerto Rico. This version never got a vote.

But a similar GOP version does appear to be moving ahead. On March 26, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala., introduced a GOP version of the January House bill. He too included the $600 million in food assistance for Puerto Rico, calling it “a key Democratic priority in the bill.”

The GOP version includes relief for the midwest from flooding and tornadoes in 2019 that occurred after the House passed its bill.

Reported comments from Trump at a private luncheon with GOP senators added more drama to the funding dilemma. Multiple news reports stated that Trump criticized Puerto Rico’s past use of disaster aid, arguing it had received too much.

The impasse came to a head later in the day when the Senate voted 90-10 vote to move the House legislation forward, with Scott voting in favor.

On April 1, the Senate is expected to take up the House Democrats’ version and Shelby’s GOP version. The question now is how much money for Puerto Rico will survive in whatever version the GOP-led Senate passes.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said the Puerto Rico provisions were a “sticking point” on the negotiations. He told The Hill that if aid to Puerto Rico is reduced, many Democrats would vote against it. That would put Democrats in the precarious position of voting against disaster aid a year before an election, and it’s unclear how many would take that risk.

News reports said that Democrats gave Republicans a few options to move forward, including an amendment by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., that included additional money for Puerto Rico including to rebuild damaged water systems and ensure resiliency for future storms.

Leahy’s amendment also calls for forcing the federal government to speed up the process to allocate a separate pot of disaster money, including $8.3 billion for Puerto Rico, that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced in 2018 that it would allocate. The hold up is that the federal government hasn’t finalized the rules related to the funding. (When Schumer said billions approved a year ago remain unspent, this is what he was referring to.)

It’s not only Senate Democrats who have called out the feds to hurry up to loosen the purse strings.

Republican senators from Texas, Ted Cruz and John Cornyn, and Gov. Greg Abbott sent a letter to federal officials asking that the government take steps to free up $4.3 billion for flood mitigation earmarked for Texas. (Many Texas representatives including Democrats also signed the letter.)

Almost one year after HUD allocated that funding, “Texas cannot begin to utilize this important funding because HUD has not published the rules governing their use in the Federal Register,” the Republican senators wrote.

Back to the vote upcoming April 1.

It appears that both parties want to pass disaster aid including for Puerto Rico, but it’s unclear where they will land.

We sent a summary of our findings to Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan expert on the federal budget. He said there’s plenty of blame to go around:

“It seems like Senate Democrats are going to defeat the disaster supplemental to gain leverage on the disaster supplemental that will emerge like a Phoenix from the flames of current one. You could say that Democrats are holding it up. You can also say that the Republicans are not being as generous as the Democrats want.

“But there are also hold-ups with previously appropriated disaster funds because of HUD. It is a mess. I don’t know if the president’s criticism is really holding things up. They seem to be on separate tracks.”