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Senate fails to advance disaster relief package


The Senate hit a stalemate Monday on legislation to speed disaster-relief money to victims of hurricanes, tornadoes and flooding, with lawmakers ending up in a partisan fight over how much money should be allocated to Puerto Rico.

Senators first filibustered a $13.45 billion GOP-written plan, then filibustered the $14.2 billion package that had cleared the Democrat-led House earlier this year.

The Democratic alternative actually got more votes in the GOP-led Senate, though neither cleared 50 votes, much less the 60 needed to surmount a filibuster.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has set up the chance for a revote, but Monday’s action dashed hopes of quickly getting a disaster aid package to President Trump’s desk.

Mr. McConnell had said the House package was a “non-starter” because it didn’t provide relief for the Midwest and that the White House has indicated President Trump would not support it. He said that left the GOP’s plan as the obvious path forward.

“It’s our only sure path to making a law with anywhere near the urgency these Americans deserve,” he said.

That proposal, written by Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby, included $600 million in nutrition assistance for Puerto Rico.

But Democrats wanted even more money to go toward Puerto Rico, challenging Mr. Trump, who last month had complained that money was being wasted by officials on the island.

Mr. Shelby has acknowledged that the White House’s objections on Puerto Rico aid are a factor.

“At the end of the day, we got to get the president to sign something,” said the Alabama Republican.

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, chastised the president Monday.

“The administration’s response to Puerto Rico can be summed up in two words: cruel, nasty,” he said. “President Trump tweets while Puerto Rico suffers.”

But Sen. Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican, said Democrats running for president in 2020 may have to answer to Iowa voters, who hold the first caucuses of the primary season. Iowa suffered catastrophic flooding last month.

“How are you going to look Iowans in the eye and justify a vote against moving this disaster relief bill ahead?” Mr. Grassley said.

None of the 2020 presidential candidates were swayed. Sens. Cory A. Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Amy Klobuchar, and Bernard Sanders all voted against Mr. Shelby’s plan. Sen. Kamala D. Harris, California Democrat, did not vote.

Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, tried to offer an amendment Monday to ensure that funding would go to states affected by recent tornadoes and flooding, but Republicans objected.

Mr. Leahy had proposed another option last week that would have included additional community development block grant money for Puerto Rico and other states, along with more money for state revolving funds to help Puerto Rico and other states rebuild damaged water systems.

That plan would have also directed the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to release more block grant money within 90 days.

Congress had approved $35.4 billion in block grant funds, including $19.9 billion intended to go to Puerto Rico, to recover from damage caused by hurricanes in 2017, according to a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report.

But as of January 2019, Puerto Rico hadn’t “drawn down” any money out of about $1.5 billion that was made available, the report said.

Democrats blamed the Trump administration for holding up the funds, and an official with HUD’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) told lawmakers recently the agency was looking into whether there’s been any White House interference.

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