Puerto Rico: The Forgotten Island
President Donald Trump wants to stop sending disaster aid to Puerto Rico. Senate Democrats are threatening to vote down a $13.5 billion disaster aid bill unless Puerto Rico gets more money.
But Democrats and Republicans from Florida want the bill — which includes $600 million for Puerto Rico’s bankrupt nutrition assistance program — to pass as is immediately.
“We’re talking about hungry kids here,” said Rep. Darren Soto, a Puerto Rican Democrat from Central Florida who represents the state’s largest Puerto Rican community. “I realize that in an ideal world we would have more, but I realize there’s going to be interplay between the House and the Senate. There’s going to have to be some compromise about this stuff.”
The latest Puerto Rico fight, over 18 months after Hurricane Maria made landfall and left tens of thousands without power for months, comes after the president told Republican senators during a private lunch that the U.S. territory was receiving too much disaster aid from the federal government.
Trump claimed Thursday that he’s “taken better care of Puerto Rico than any man ever.”
Senate Democrats are pushing for more money for Puerto Rico and, after Trump’s comments, have threatened to vote against a disaster relief bill that could make it to the floor next week. Ten Republicans voted against the bill during an earlier procedural vote and more of them could be spurred to vote against the proposal if they think that’s what Trump would prefer.
“I’d love to have some additional money in the bill, but we don’t have the support for it, the president won’t sign it,” said Sen. Marco Rubio. “So we can at least get the [nutrition] money taken care of.”
Sen. Rick Scott said the president is committed to signing the bill as currently written, after Scott successfully submitted an amendment including the $600 million in nutrition funding last month. A host of Scott backers who hold elected office in Puerto Rico implored the president and Democrats to pass the bill immediately.
Congress missed a deadline to reauthorize Puerto Rico’s nutrition program in March, resulting in food stamps being cut from tens of thousands of U.S. citizens. The Washington Post reported that the lapse in food stamps led to healthcare providers being unable to afford new adult diapers when patients soiled themselves.
“We worked with the White House to make sure it’s a bill they’ll sign off on now,” Scott said. “There’s always more you can do, but what we’re doing now let’s get it done. I worked on getting $600 million in the bill for a nutrition program for Puerto Rico, I talked to many of my friends in Puerto Rico — they want to get this bill now.”
Scott repeatedly bashed Senate Democrats when asked if he was worried that more Republicans would join the 10 who already voted against moving the bill forward.
Senate Appropriations Chair Richard Shelby, R-Alabama, said the package was “kind of stalled at the moment,” but that negotiators are talking.
“If we get through it next week, that would be wonderful,” he said. “We realize Puerto Rico’s going to need some help, they need nutrition help, they need other help, but they don’t have the best record of spending money wisely.”
Asked if he was prepared to support more than the $600 million, Shelby said, “I’m prepared to look at anything that’s substantive and meaningful and the money could be used wisely for the people of Puerto Rico.”
Shelby and Democratic Appropriations Chair Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, said they planned to find a compromise next week, when approached by a reporter off the Senate floor.
But an ongoing war of words between Trump and Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló could heighten partisan tensions as Floridians push to pass a bill. Rosselló, who has tried without success to get a meeting with the president on disaster aid in recent months, said, “If the bully gets close, I’ll punch the bully in the mouth,” as he vented his frustrations with the president during an interview with CNN.
The proposed disaster bill also includes funding for Hurricane Michael recovery, money that is not considered controversial but is held up by congressional inaction.
But Florida Democrats have confidence that enough Senate Republicans won’t be pressured by the president to stop disaster aid for Puerto Rico.
“There are enough senators that want to get something done and feel for Puerto Rico,” said Miami Rep. Donna Shalala. “I think Rick Scott and Rubio care about Puerto Rico.”