Congress

Puerto Rico disaster aid delay could renew Democratic suspicions of Trump’s stonewalling

Puerto Rico’s $8.3 billion can’t be awarded until HUD drafts new regulations, currently awaiting White House review

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson is seen in the Capitol on Thursday March 14, 2019. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

A delay in the delivery of previously approved disaster aid money to hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico could complicate negotiations on a new aid package just as a bipartisan compromise appears close at hand.

Puerto Rico has been awaiting $8.3 billion in mitigation funds designed to help protect against future disasters. But the money can’t be awarded until the Department of Housing and Urban Development drafts new regulations for the funding, which is part of $16 billion provided nationwide under the Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery program Congress approved last year.

HUD Secretary Ben Carson told lawmakers last month that a notice of the new regulations would be published in the Federal Register by May 1. A department spokesman said Thursday that the regulations have been completed but now await a review by the White House. A senior administration official said only that the review would be conducted “expeditiously.”

The Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, part of the White House Office of Management and Budget, typically reviews all new regulations proposed by federal agencies. The office has 90 days to do that, but the deadline can also be extended.

For months, Democrats have accused the administration of slow-walking the delivery of aid to Puerto Rico. President Donald Trump has told Republicans he opposed additional aid to the U.S. island territory, beyond $600 million for nutritional assistance, because he says Puerto Rico hasn’t shown it can spend the money effectively.

The delay of the regulations’ publication is likely to renew Democratic suspicions of administration stonewalling, just as Senate negotiators appear to be nearing a compromise on a new disaster aid package for communities stretching from California to the Southeast.

A senior Democratic aide expressed dismay at the delay, questioning why an additional review was necessary since the White House had been “a part of HUD’s work in this effort from the beginning.”

Carson has denied any attempt to slow-walk the delivery of aid. “I hope we can put an end to that rumor at this stage,” he told House appropriators last month.

The latest Republican offer for a compromise disaster aid package includes a provision requiring HUD to issue a notice of funding availability for the mitigation money within 120 days, according to a GOP aide.

Kellie Mejdrich contributed to this report.

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