Congress leaves Washington without reaching a disaster relief deal

Congress departs Washington this week for a long recess leaving behind a key piece of unfinished business: Funding for millions of Americans harmed by hurricanes, floods, wildfires, and other natural disasters.

Lawmakers can’t reach a deal because President Donald Trump is refusing to provide the amount of money Democrats are demanding for Puerto Rico, which is still recovering from Hurricane Maria two years ago. Trump believes government leaders there — who he has repeatedly clashed with politically — haven’t spent wisely the relief money already allocated to it.

“I cannot fathom why this President has so much antipathy towards Puerto Rico. These are American citizens, badly damaged by natural disasters,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, a Democrat from Maryland told reporters Friday, noting that the House approved significant funds for the territory. “I do not know what the President and Republicans are thinking about in abandoning Puerto Rico.”

The top Senate Republican leading the talks had what he described as a “long” meeting with Trump late Thursday and said they are “trying to make some overtures to the Democrats to settle this disaster package.”

Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, the chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, wouldn’t provide any details about what a new offer might look like but said White House staff would work with congressional staff over the two-week recess when both chambers will be away. He said he hopes to vote on a proposal when Congress returns to session at the end of the month.

But Shelby wouldn’t say if he got assurances from Trump that he would back new funding for Puerto Rico.

“That’s the lynchpin of the whole negotiations. Their history of spending and everything that goes with it. I think most people want to help Puerto Rico, but we want to make sure that money is well spent,” Shelby said. “This has not always been the case.”

Shelby acknowledged that problems with spending of federal funds exist in all 50 states not just Puerto Rico, which is a US territory.

It’s unusual for lawmakers to fail to pass disaster relief given that aid is typically a priority that both sides of the aisle can agree on. The stalled aid package is one more sign of how bitterly divided along partisan lines Congress has become.

The split has left disaster-struck areas in the lurch. As the stalemate continues in Congress, a powerful blizzard hit parts of the country this week, including states damaged by recent floods, threatening to make recovery even more challenging.

At the start of the month, the dispute came to a head when the Senate failed to advance two competing disaster relief plans, one supported by Democrats and the other backed by Republicans.

The GOP-backed measure included $600 million to pay for nutrition assistance for Puerto Rico, but Democrats objected to the proposal, arguing that it did not provide adequate relief. The Democratic plan that came up for a vote was a measure that passed out of the Democratic-controlled House months ago. Republicans criticized that legislation for not providing relief for recent flooding that has devastated the Midwest.

Since then, Democrats have introduced new disaster relief legislation that includes additional aid to deal with recent flooding, trying to ramp up political pressure on Republicans to pass the deal and force Trump to accept it.

Earlier this week, House Democrats unveiled a $17.2 billion measure that includes $3 billion to provide relief for Midwest flooding and other natural disasters that have taken place since the House initially passed a relief bill in January.

Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer and the ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee Sen. Patrick Leahy on Thursday introduced a companion version of the House bill in the Senate.

Tensions between the White House and Puerto Rico have escalated amid the stalemate and the President’s continued attacks directed at Puerto Rico.

After the Senate failed to advance the competing disaster relief plans at the start of the month, Trump tweeted that Puerto Rico “pols are grossly incompetent, spend the money foolishly or corruptly, & only take from USA.”

In response to a tweet by the President referring to her as “crazed and incompetent,” San Juan mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz told CNN’s Erin Burnett “the President lives in an alternate world where he tries to pin people against one another.”

The President has also made claims that fact-checkers have deemed false as he lashes out publicly at Puerto Rico.

In one tweet, rated false by FactCheck.org, Trump claimed, “Puerto Rico got 91 Billion Dollars for the hurricane, more money than has ever been gotten for a hurricane before.”

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