Puerto Rico aid among issues complicating disaster bill talks

The size and scope of a disaster aid package has become a flashpoint among Senate appropriators

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala., talks with reporters before a meeting with Republican and Democratic negotiators on government spending on Monday, Feb. 11, 2019. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The size and scope of a disaster aid package has become a flashpoint as Senate appropriators construct a supplemental spending bill they hope to move quickly.

The fight appears to be between Democrats who want additional aid for Puerto Rico and states ravaged by 2017 storms, while Republicans are attempting to keep the bill contained to rebuilding from disasters that struck last year.

“[Democrats] want a number of things we’ll not be able to do,” Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby said Thursday. “We want to be rational about it.

“The list seems to grow sometimes too much,” the Alabama Republican added. “We’re trying to balance what we think we can do and what the president would sign.”

Nonetheless, Shelby said he’d like to get the package through the Senate in time for that chamber’s scheduled recess starting at the end of next week.

Georgia Republican Senators Johnny Isakson and David Perdue introduced a $13.6 billion version at the end of February that contains $610 million to restore nutrition benefit cuts that triggered earlier this week for about 1.4 million Puerto Rico residents.

But Shelby and Democratic appropriators are negotiating a more expansive version. After the Georgians introduced their bill, tornadoes struck that state as well as Shelby’s home state, where 23 people died in Lee County, Ala. over the weekend.

A Senate Republican aide said Democrats are using the Puerto Rico nutrition assistance request as their anchor to make a much broader push for funding. A Senate Democratic appropriations aide told CQ that negotiations are ongoing, but that top appropriations Democrat Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont “will continue to push for much-needed disaster relief for Puerto Rico and the rest of the country,” noting the deaths of thousands in Puerto Rico stemming from Hurricane Maria in 2017.

On Puerto Rico, shortfalls in nutrition assistance, Medicaid funds, and how to continue repairs from hurricane damage are all issues in the mix. Medicaid recipients could face major cuts at the end of September if Congress doesn’t boost funding for medical care for the poor, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal-leaning think tank.

A House Democratic aide said increasing the federal cost share for certain repairs to 100 percent was an issue for Puerto Rico, after the Federal Emergency Management Agency last year cut the federal contribution to 90 percent. Democrats also want money to make structures more resilient to withstand the next major disaster.

“It is disappointing that Republicans would pit disaster victims against each other instead of working with us to help all Americans affected by disasters in the last two years,” the aide said.

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