The U.S. Senate is operating on borrowed time, with less than 10 days remaining until another potential government shutdown as a debate over immigration policy consumes Washington.
But Florida Sens. Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio reminded their colleagues on Tuesday that the U.S. Senate hasn’t passed a disaster relief bill in more than three months, even though Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said additional relief bills would come to help Florida, Puerto Rico, Texas and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
“There will be additional rounds, and we are all fully committed to meeting the needs that have arisen as a result of these devastating hurricanes,” McConnell said in October.
In back-to-back speeches on the Senate floor, Nelson and Rubio delivered a laundry list of arguments in favor of a new disaster relief bill that helps victims of Hurricanes Irma, Maria and Harvey and of wildfires in California.
“I hope our colleagues in the Senate will understand the urgency of this matter,” Nelson said. “We can’t keep pushing this off down into the future. The need to act is now.”
Nelson said Florida received only $600 million of the $7.4 billion doled out in September for long-term disaster relief through the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
“What percentage is that of $7.4 billion? It’s well less than 10 percent. It defies comprehension,” Nelson said.
Nelson also listed a number of other issues that must be resolved through a disaster aid package, including Medicaid funding for Puerto Rico, help for Florida’s citrus industry and additional funding for Florida schools dealing with a glut of new students from Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
The Federal Emergency Management Administration is also set to end food and water aid in Puerto Rico this week as grocery stores reopen, a decision Nelson blasted.
“I am absolutely shocked that FEMA has announced that on Wednesday, it will stop distributing food and water to Puerto Rico,” Nelson said. “Cutting this aid to the people of Puerto Rico, almost a third of them who still do not have electricity, it’s unconscionable, and it’s a travesty.”
Rubio echoed many of the arguments made by Nelson.
“Long after the cameras leave and long after the stories aren’t being written real people and real lives are disrupted, sometimes permanently,” Rubio said, pointing to floating debris in the Florida Keys and its negative impacts on tourism and business.
“I am disappointed,” Rubio said. “If you had told me that we would have gotten to the last week of January and still hadn’t taken up disaster relief, I would have been surprised because we had a chance to actually address this at the end of last year. The House sent over a bill that didn’t go far enough, the Senate had ideas about how to make it better and then for reasons involving leverage and using it as a tool to get people to vote for ... short-term spending at the end it’s kind of been held up.”
Rubio also highlighted Puerto Rico’s needs in a disaster aid package, adding that he would like to see the U.S. territory’s Medicaid program addressed, a temporary payroll tax deduction and a temporary expansion of the child tax credit in Puerto Rico.
It’s unclear when a disaster relief bill will be addressed by the U.S. Senate. A proposal could be attached to the upcoming short-term spending bill or it could be brought up on its own.
“Do not forget about disaster relief. ... We have to get this done,” Rubio said.