U.S. House approves disaster funds as Trump criticizes Puerto Rico

A couple walks by a damaged tree in the Hurricane Maria affected area of Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, October 12, 2017. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

WASHINGTON,  (Reuters) – A new package of U.S. disaster assistance sailed through the House of Representatives yesterday, despite President Donald Trump expressing impatience with having to devote federal resources for hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico’s recovery.

The Republican-controlled House voted 353-69 to approve $36.5 billion in emergency relief for Puerto Rico and other areas hit by recent disasters. Senate approval is expected in coming weeks.

Trump and his aides on Thursday suggested that there would be a limit to how much help Puerto Rico could expect from Washington to solve some of its longer-term problems, although Trump is expected to sign the latest emergency package.

The White House on Thursday evening issued a statement saying the Trump administration was “pleased” that the House had approved the relief funds and pledged to work with Congress going forward to provide resources to recover and rebuild.

Puerto Rico has been grappling with a bankruptcy crisis and owes $72 billion to creditors.

Devastation from hurricanes Irma and Maria was exacerbated by dilapidated infrastructure, including a power grid largely destroyed by the storms.

In a morning tweet, Trump warned that the United States “cannot keep FEMA, the Military & the First Responders, who have been amazing (under the most difficult circumstances) in P.R. forever!”

FEMA is the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which oversees disaster response in the United States.

Presidential aides later on Thursday provided assurances that Washing-ton will not abandon Puerto Rico, a Caribbean U.S. territory with a population of 3.4 million.

All 69 votes against the aid package came from Trump’s fellow Republicans. Congress is expected to consider additional aid in the coming weeks but the debate could grow more contentious.

House Speaker Paul Ryan is scheduled to lead a bipartisan congressional delegation to Puerto Rico on Friday.

Some conservatives displayed early signs of spending fatigue.

Republican Representative Tom Cole, a senior member of the House Appropriations Commit-tee, said some lawmakers have urged him to find ways to offset the costs of disaster relief.

Besides the latest aid package, Congress last month approved $15.25 billion to help with earlier storm damages, including Hurricane Harvey’s impact in Texas, and wildfires.

“There is some concern about can we couple some of this (disaster aid) with reform measures,” Cole told Reuters on Wednesday. That could include savings to a national flood insurance program or other steps, he added.

Besides helping Puerto Rico recover from Maria, the bill would also provide funds for storm-struck areas of Florida, Texas and the U.S. Virgin Islands, and fire-ravaged California.

Cole said the price tag could rise as relief efforts transition from emergency response to rebuilding.

 

Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, which has a sizeable Puerto Rican community, told Reuters he had urged Trump to create a high-level task force to provide advice for rebuilding Puerto Rico, and that the president was receptive to the idea.

Much of Puerto Rico remains without electricity or running water three weeks after Maria’s landfall.

“They’re basically three weeks now living in the 19th century,” Rubio said.

White House Chief of Staff John Kelly told reporters the Trump administration would “stand with those American citizens in Puerto Rico until the job is done.”

But Trump’s top legislative aide warned against expecting Washington’s help for long-term infrastructure problems.

“The president is committed to helping to make sure that we do what is necessary to help to rebuild the island, but there are some elements that pre-existed the hurricane,” Marc Short said on CNN.

The House bill includes $18.7 billion for FEMA’s disaster relief fund. Of that, $4.9 billion is earmarked for loans to local governments to ensure Puerto Rico can keep government programs operating beyond Oct. 31.

Other funds include $576.5 million for wildfire control.

Some $16 billion would go to help the National Flood Insurance Program cover claims after reaching its borrowing limit.

In its statement, the White House said it urged Congress to adopt reforms to the program to ensure its “long-term financial viability.”

Democratic Representative Nydia Velazquez of New York, which has a large Puerto Rican community, chastised Trump.

“The president of the United States is tweeting out threats to withdraw assistance, that is an outrage, that is an insult,” Velazquez said.

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