Disaster Relief Usually Sails Through Congress. The Sticking Point Now: Puerto Rico.

WASHINGTON — Congress is set to leave town for a two-week spring recess without fulfilling perhaps the most pressing item on its agenda, aid to victims of floods, fires and hurricanes. Democrats are unwilling to drop additional relief for Puerto Rico and Republicans are unwilling to force President Trump to choose between sending more aid to the island or vetoing a bill needed by many of his voters across the country.

It is a classic Trump-era Washington gridlock, with profound implications for millions of Americans whose lives have been upended by natural disaster.

House Democrats, backed by their Senate counterparts, are determined to secure more resources for citizens they believe have been unfairly maligned by Mr. Trump: A $17.2 billion package introduced this week in the lower chamber would offer new funds for flood recovery in the Midwest and other disasters that have occurred since their first package passed in January, as part of an effort to reopen the government.

For his part, the president, still smarting from his defeat after the government shutdown, has told lawmakers that Puerto Rican officials have squandered millions of dollars already, and he said he will not agree to any new funding.

“The president has what you call a veto under the Constitution, as you well know,” said Senator Richard C. Shelby, Republican of Alabama and chairman of the Appropriations Committee.

“The linchpin is Puerto Rico,” he added. “We’ll wait and see if Democrats make an offer that’s palatable to us, and also to the president.”

As lawmakers have repeatedly pointed out, in floor speeches and asides to reporters, that is not how negotiations on disaster relief usually go. Demands are exchanged, and then an emergency bill sweeps through both chambers with huge bipartisan majorities before the president signs it.

Even in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, when fiscal conservatives grumbled about the size of a relief package, the parry of demands only lasted a couple of months before President Barack Obama signed the nearly $51 billion measure.

And some Republicans conceded that the current president’s support, while helpful, is not necessarily vital.

“It would help, but I don’t think it makes it impossible” to move without him, said Senator Johnny Isakson, Republican of Georgia.

But these are not ordinary times, and it is not clear how or when the impasse can be broken. The pressure to get something done, and quickly, is rising by the day, from farmers in the Southeast who are still grappling with massive crop losses from Hurricane Michael last October, to people in Puerto Rico going hungry due to food stamp cuts, to officials in small-town Iowa and Missouri who are still bailing out from some of the worst floods in recent memory.

“People are anxious to get back to their lives, and they need help right away,” said Joe Lear, the northwest director for the University of Missouri Extension, who has been helping to coordinate the response to the inundation of small, rural communities that had been losing population even before the floods.

“The longer it takes for them to fix the roads, the levees, the longer it takes to make federal funds for small business loans — the more likely it is that some of the people who have been displaced are never coming back to these places,” Mr. Lear added.

Negotiators began wrangling in December, unsuccessfully pushing to attach the measure to bills that would keep the government fully funded. Since then, the size of the emergency relief measure has swollen as the disasters, demands for funding and White House rancor have mounted.

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Itzaida Planas walked to the house of a neighbor, which was damaged by Hurricane Maria in Canovanas, Puerto Rico, in 2017.CreditCarlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters

“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,” said Representative Nita Lowey of New York, the chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee and a key champion of the House packages.

A $13 billion package authored by Republican senators failed to garner enough votes in the Senate earlier this month, after Senate Democrats, who have been pushing for a major expansion of relief aid for Puerto Rico, argued that it was not enough. The Republican measures have not contained additional aid for Puerto Rico that has been allocated in the House measures.

Democrats have framed themselves as advocates for the island, which as a United States territory does not have voting representation in Congress.

“We should not be picking and choosing who gets disaster relief,” said Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the minority leader, in a floor speech Thursday. “When Americans suffer, we all step in.”

Republicans have agreed to allocate about $600 million for food assistance to Puerto Rico. But Mr. Trump has balked at spending any more than that — telling Senate Republicans late last month that “we could buy Puerto Rico four times over” with the federal money already spent on disaster relief for the island since Hurricanes Maria and Irma struck in 2017, according to several people in the room.

The party’s rank-and-file are more flexible. Senator Joni Ernst, Republican of Iowa, one of the states hardest hit by spring flooding, said Senate Republicans are not averse to sending Puerto Rico more aid. But she suggested that other Republicans, especially Mr. Trump, needed proof that previous allocations have not been wasted.

“Puerto Rico has received dollars for disaster funding; Iowa, Nebraska and all those other states haven’t seen a lick of that, and the Midwest needs immediate relief,” Ms. Ernst said on Wednesday.

Puerto Rican officials say that the island, which suffered a catastrophic blow to its electric grid and housing infrastructure, has been slower to recover, in part, because it is isolated from the mainland — and say billions more in federal aid is needed. According to the Office of Management and Budget, FEMA and other federal agencies have so far distributed $11.2 billion in aid to the island.

Last weekend, Republicans extended a new offer that did not guarantee new funding for Puerto Rico but added money to a pot that all states and territories could tap for disaster relief, a senior Democratic aide said. Puerto Rico would be eligible for the assistance only after spending previously allocated federal aid. Democrats rejected it.

Mr. Shelby and Senator Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, said they would continue talking.

“It’s frustrating, it’s mind-blogging,” Mr. Shelby said. “I think it’s too much politics involved in the quest to help people who have suffered, not just in Puerto Rico, but in a lot of states. We need to do it.”

Mr. Leahy argued that the Senate should do things “the old-fashioned way” — by bringing to the floor measures from both parties — and seeing what passed.

But Mr. Trump would be less likely to sign any bill that Democrats managed to push through.

Republicans appear unwilling to jam the president with a bipartisan bill. Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, said it would be “futile” to even consider any deal the president does not support.

Senator Rick Scott, Republican of Florida and the state’s governor during an onslaught of hurricanes, echoed Mr. Cornyn’s reluctance.

“The best thing is if we got everyone on board,” Mr. Scott said. “I try to get along with people, I try to do a win-win, things like that. I would rather try to get everyone to agree to something. I think it’s better for everybody.”



- https://www.nytimes.com/pages/politics/index.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

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