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Congress will probably leave town without voting on a disaster bill

Partisan deadlock over how much relief aid should go to Puerto Rico is showing no signs of easing

Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., exits the Senators Only elevator in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Wednesday, March 27, 2019. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., exits the Senators Only elevator in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Wednesday, March 27, 2019. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

A partisan deadlock over a disaster relief package showed no signs of easing Tuesday, as the two camps traded barbs over aid for hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico.

Senate Republicans made a new offer over the weekend that Democrats dismissed, weakening prospects for a deal before lawmakers leave town later this week for a two-week Easter recess. President Donald Trump has told Republicans he won’t support additional aid to Puerto Rico beyond an extra $600 million in food assistance that is already included in a GOP-written bill.

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“Things look bleak,” said Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby who held talks in recent days with Democrats and the White House. “But you never know. Sometimes there’s a storm before the sun comes up.”

Democrats have sought an additional $462 million for long-term rebuilding of the U.S. island territory, along with a commitment to speed up the delivery of billions of dollars in aid that has yet to be disbursed by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

But the latest Republican offer includes no such guarantee and provides no additional funding explicitly for Puerto Rico, according to a senior Democratic aide. Instead, it enlarges a pot of money that could be tapped by all disaster zones nationwide, while denying eligibility to Puerto Rico until all previously approved aid that has been held up gets spent, the aide said.

Shelby declined to discuss details of the offer, but he acknowledged a concern among Republicans that Puerto Rico is in line for more aid without sufficient accountability. “They’ve got billions of dollars they haven’t even spent,” the Alabama Republican said. “That’s a problem.”

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Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, said Republicans aren’t treating all areas of the country equally by denying needed assistance to Puerto Rico. “As long as they want to keep Puerto Rico out, I can’t fully understand it,” he said. “I think Americans are Americans are Americans.”

Republicans are likely unwilling to meet urgent needs in Puerto Rico because “they’re afraid Donald Trump will oppose it,” Leahy said.

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The $16.7 billion package drafted by GOP appropriators would offer long-delayed relief to victims of hurricanes, wildfires, floods and other natural disasters from California to the Southeast. The House passed an initial package in January, only to watch it stall for months as the dispute over Puerto Rico intensified.

House Democrats, meanwhile, offered up another aid package on Tuesday, though it wasn’t clear any new legislation could win approval before the Easter recess begins. 

“Senate Republicans have bent to the will of President Trump and torpedoed relief for all disasters because of the President’s bizarre vendetta against Puerto Rico,” House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., said in a statement. “This legislation provides robust, comprehensive assistance that will help all Americans affected by natural disasters recover and rebuild. I urge my Republican colleagues to come to their senses and join Democrats in advancing this bill and delivering prompt relief.”

The new $17.2 billion offering from House Democrats is similar to the $14.2 billion package that chamber passed in January, with an additional $3 billion tacked on to respond to flooding in the Midwest and tornadoes that ripped through Southeastern states this year.

Of the new funds, $1.5 billion would be distributed through the Army Corps of Engineers, and the other $1 billion run through HUD’s Community Development Block Grant program and another $500 million through the Agriculture Department’s Emergency Conservation Program for farmers and ranchers to rehabilitate farmland damaged by recent disasters.

Paul M. Krawzak contributed to this report.

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