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Disaster Relief Legislation Has Stalled Over A Fight About Money For Puerto Rico


There are few things Democrats and Republicans in Congress usually agree on, like rushing federal money to victims of natural disasters. That normal order of things fell apart this week. The Senate failed to advance two separate bills to help people across the country who suffered from flooding, wildfires, tornadoes and hurricanes.


This stalemate comes down to just one thing - how much aid to give to Puerto Rico, which is still recovering from Hurricane Maria. Republicans blame Democrats. And Democrats blame - well, let's just listen to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.


CHUCK SCHUMER: Everything was moving along. And guess who came in and messed it up, as usual - the president.

SHAPIRO: Yes, President Trump. We begin our coverage with NPR congressional reporter Kelsey Snell on Capitol Hill.

Hi, Kelsey.


SHAPIRO: Explain what's at the heart of this battle over aid to Puerto Rico.

SNELL: Well, I think we should start off by saying that these disaster aid bills are usually pretty bipartisan. And they usually move really quickly, mostly because you never really know when the next disaster will happen or where it will strike. So senators like to vote to support, you know, sending money just in case they might be next.

So Democrats say Trump is specifically denying money for Puerto Rico. And they point to comments from the White House referring to the island territory, which we should say is very much a part of the United States, as a different country. Republicans say Puerto Rico still hasn't spent money that was authorized in the past. And Senator Shelby, who is the chairman of the appropriations committee, he said last week that Puerto Rico has a history of not spending money well when it's given to them.

Democrats say all American citizens should have the same access to disaster assistance no matter where they are.

SHAPIRO: Kelsey, will you fact-check for us a tweet from President Trump where he said today that the island got $91 billion for the hurricanes. Democrats say that is not true. Who's right here?

SNELL: Yeah. There is a lot of dispute over that number on the Hill.

So there is a report out there that says Puerto Rico will have access to that amount of money over years, if not decades. But that isn't what's been sent to the island so far. Democrats say Puerto Rico hasn't received enough money. They're seizing, basically, on Trump's recent comments, and they say that he just doesn't want to send money to Puerto Rico - period. They're basically saying that the administration hasn't released a lot of money that Congress already authorized.

And this is a problem for states like Texas, too, but the political fight is all about Puerto Rico right now. It's really only gotten more intense since Trump singled out Puerto Rico. And this, like I said, is really political. They want to - Democrats want to highlight the president denying money to a largely Hispanic territory.

SHAPIRO: What else do Democrats say the island needs for recovery?

SNELL: Yeah. They say that they need money for basic redevelopment. We're talking about stuff like roads and bridges and basic phone and internet infrastructure. And it's all about this one program known as the Community Development Block Grant. Now, this is a pot of money primarily focused on housing and service for low-income communities. Now, Trump approved money for nutrition assistance - for food stamps - but not the Community Development Block Grant. And that's where Democrats say they really need money.

SHAPIRO: How do they move forward if neither side seems ready to move on this?

SNELL: That is the big question, and nobody seems to have an answer. And the fight is already causing people to have some big worries about how Congress will spend money for the entire rest of the year. Remember; we have to keep the government open again in September. And they can't seem to agree on anything when it comes down to money.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Kelsey Snell on Capitol Hill. Thanks, Kelsey.

SNELL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kelsey Snell is a Congressional correspondent for NPR. She has covered Congress since 2010 for outlets including The Washington Post, Politico and National Journal. She has covered elections and Congress with a reporting specialty in budget, tax and economic policy. She has a graduate degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. and an undergraduate degree in political science from DePaul University in Chicago.