CHN: Disaster Aid Bill Remains Stalled in the Senate

Efforts to get billions of dollars in disaster aid to Americans in Puerto Rico, other U.S. territories, and states across the mainland affected by natural disasters remained stalled after two proposals failed to advance past a procedural vote in the Senate on April 1. The Senate failed (46-48) to advance the House-passed bill (H.R. 268) along party lines, and a Republican version also fell 44-49 (60 votes needed).

Funding for Puerto Rico was one of the main sticking points in the failure of both bills. While the Republican bill included $600 million in nutrition assistance for Puerto Rico, Democrats and advocates say much more is needed to help the island. In March, all 1.35 million Puerto Ricans who receive benefits through the island’s Nutrition Assistance Program (NAP, the island’s version of SNAP) began to see their benefits cut as funding ran out. Unlike SNAP in the states and other territories besides Puerto Rico, NAP does not automatically expand in the event of a natural disaster or economic downturn. Rather, Puerto Rico’s NAP relies on a fixed block grant that can only increase to meet need if Congress appropriates additional funds.

The day after the failed votes, Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY) and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) introduced a package that would appropriate $16.7 billion to help Puerto Rico and a number of states that experienced natural disasters and flooding in 2018 and 2019. According to CQ, the proposal would add to the Republican measure an additional $431 million for Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) to help states and territories cover matching funds for FEMA assistance; a provision that would require the Department of Housing and Urban Development to release billions of dollars in previously appropriated CDBG funds, much of which is for Puerto Rico; an additional $250 million to help affected states and territories fix damaged water systems; and Medicaid funding for the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam and American Samoa, which advocates say is desperately needed.

While the White House has agreed to support the $600 million in nutrition assistance for Puerto Rico, President Trump remains opposed to any additional funding going to the island. Advocates are hopeful an agreement with adequate money for Puerto Rico and for the other U.S. territories and states can be reached before Congress recesses for two weeks beginning later this week.