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Disaster Bill Sidetracked in Senate in Fight Over Puerto Rico Aid

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell shelved, at least for the moment, a $14-billion disaster aid bill on Monday after Democrats and Republicans took turns threatening a filibuster over aid to Puerto Rico. “This is not going to be the end of this tale,” said Senator David Perdue (R-GA), who blamed “pure, partisan politics” for blocking relief funds for farmers in his state and elsewhere.

It was the second setback this year for relief funds for wildfires in California and hurricanes in the South. President Trump has opposed additional aid to Puerto Rico, although he agreed recently to provide $600 million for the island’s version of food stamps. Democrats have proposed an additional $681 million in block-grant and revolving-fund money for relief work on Puerto Rico and the mainland.

Before senators effectively sidetracked the legislation, Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby of Alabama said the only way to assure aid to Puerto Rico was to vote for his package, which included $600 million for nutrition assistance. “The Shelby amendment has the support of the president.” The $13.5-billion GOP package would also provide flood relief for farmers and ranchers in the northern Plains and western Corn Belt.

In party-line votes, senators refused, 44-49, to limit debate on the GOP package, and also refused, 46-48, to move forward on a House-passed disaster bill, which has more funding for Puerto Rico than was proposed by Senate Republicans. After the votes, McConnell said the Senate would take up other business on Tuesday. However, he preserved the chance for a new vote on the disaster bill.

Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer of New York said the administration has been slow to release previously approved disaster aid to Puerto Rico, which was hit by two major hurricanes in 2017. Schumer described the situation as a “cruel, nasty” approach. The top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, Vermont’s Pat Leahy, said Trump “tweets while Puerto Rico suffers.” Leahy was blocked from offering a package that included aid for this year’s Farm Belt floods along with more money for Puerto Rico.

“The rest of the country shouldn’t be held hostage because of Puerto Rico,” said Senator Johnny Isakson (R-GA). Isakson and Perdue were leaders in the Senate drive for disaster assistance for 2018’s fire, hurricane, and volcano losses. “I’m scared … we might get lost again,” said Isakson, noting that farmers in the South have waited since last fall for federal aid.

Hours before the Senate votes, Trump said on social media, “Democrats should stop fighting Senator David Perdue’s disaster relief bill. They are blocking funding and relief for our great farmers and rural America!”

Unlike the rest of the nation, Puerto Rico’s food stamp program is funded by a block grant from Congress. Demand for nutrition assistance surged after the hurricanes. The Puerto Rican government began scaling down benefits in March because funds were running low.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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