House approves $36.5B disaster aid package, including loan for Puerto Rico, USVI

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WASHINGTON -- The House approved a $36.5 billion package of disaster relief assistance after a series natural disasters across the U.S. and Caribbean.

The package provides a $4.9 billion loan to keep afloat the territorial governments of Puerto Rico, which is restructuring more than $50 billion of bond debt, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

In a 353-69 vote Thursday the house advanced an aid package that Republican and Democratic lawmakers said constitutes only the second installment in a continuing commitment to provide relief after a series of hurricanes struck Texas, Florida and the Caribbean, and wildfires raged through northern California.

The measure provides $16 billion for the National Flood Insurance Program and $18.7 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Disaster Relief Fund, including the loan to Puerto Rico and the U.S.VI. It also provides $576.5 million for wildfires, and $1.27 billion for emergency nutritional assistance for Puerto Rico.

The Senate is expected to take up the legislation after it returns next week from a week long recess and first clears a 2018 budget resolution Republicans want to enact to create a path for tax reform.

Earlier in the day President Trump posted a series of messages on Twitter, concluding with: “We cannot keep FEMA, the Military & the First Responders, who have been amazing (under the most difficult circumstances) in P.R. forever!”

Democratic lawmakers rebuked President Trump during the floor debate.

“Mr. President, do not send a message to any American that we will turn our backs on them,” said House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md.. “That is not fair. That is not right.”

Hoyer said he disagreed with Trump “that we are going to leave Puerto Rico or the Virgin Islands [or] any American precipitously before we have done the job we need to do.”

Rep. Nita Lowey of New York, ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, called Trump’s tweets a “Twitter tantrum.”

“Congress cannot turn its back on recovery, no matter how reckless the president’s outbursts may be, as Americans are suffering and simply trying to survive,” Lowey said.

Rep. Nydia Velazquez, D-N.Y., who was born in Puerto Rico, described Trump’s tweet as “an outrage” and “an insult.’’

“Despite President Trump’s indifference and soft bigotry, we will be there,’’ said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, former chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee.

Puerto Rico’s nonvoting Delegate Jenniffer Gonzalez-Colon, who is a Republican, made no reference to Trump’s tweets in her floor speech, choosing instead to praise her colleagues for supporting the disaster aid.

The legislation includes a first-time authorization for residents of both territories to receive food assistance under the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) formerly known as food stamps.

Delegate Stacey Plaskett, D-USVI, took a different approach to her floor comments, focusing on what was lacking in the disaster aid package.

The territories remain responsible for the local share of Medicaid health services for the poor, which is 45% in the case of the Virgin Islands, Plaskett said, noting that after Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, Congress raised the federal share of Medicaid to 100% in the affected areas.

Plaskett said the package does not include Community Development and Social Service block grants, Economic Development Administration funds, supplemental housing assistance or additional funding to repair ports, airports and other infrastructure.

“Due to these back-to-back storms, there is no revenue being generated in the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico at this time,” Plaskett said. “Our tourism related economy is gone. We will miss this entire year at the very least.”

The hurricanes that struck Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands have left most residents without fuel, clean water, food, electricity or access to medical care.

“We are witnessing a humanitarian disaster of historic proportions and it will get worse if we do not come together,” Hoyer said.

Two Democratic House lawmakers, concerned that the number of deaths in Puerto Rico may be under-reported, sent a letter to the Department of Homeland Security Thursday asking for an investigation into the death toll.

“Given recent reports suggesting that the death toll is much higher than is being officially acknowledged, we need a swift and thorough investigation to ensure the real magnitude of this crisis is made public,” said the joint letter from Reps. Nydia Velazquez, D-N.Y. and Bennie Thompson, D-Miss.

Gonzalez-Colon said the death toll reached 48 as of Thursday morning.

She also said there remain some communities at the center of the island that are accessible only by air.

And she predicted this disaster is “likely to evolve into a mass exodus of Puerto Ricans to the mainland.’’

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