Uncertain future for House-passed Puerto Rico aid

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The House voted 237 to 161 Friday to advance $4.89 billion in emergency earthquake disaster aid for Puerto Rico and another $16 billion in tax breaks that appear likely to be scaled back in size if it’s taken up by the Senate.

The House Republican leadership opposed the bill, which means it will face tough scrutiny in the Republican-controlled Senate.

House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey, D-N.Y.

President Donald Trump also has threatened to veto the bill. The administration already has slowed the flow of disaster aid to the island and Trump has delayed announcing the appointment of Coast Guard Rear Admiral Peter Brown as federal coordinator of reconstruction.

Rep. Kay Granger of Texas, ranking Republlican on the House Appropriations Committee, described the $16 billion in tax breaks as unnecessary and unrelated to the disasters.

The tax provisions were not publicly voted on in the tax-policy writing Ways and Means Committee. They include federal expansions specific to Puerto Rico in regard to the refundable child tax credit, the earned income tax credit, the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit and the New Markets Tax Credit. There’s also an increase in the so-called cover over payments to the local governments of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands for taxes collected on rum shipments to the mainland of the United States.

The refundable child tax credit currently covers only families in Puerto Rico with at least three children. The new legislation would cover all children up to the amount of Social Security taxes paid to a maximum of $1,400 per child.

Granger also described the more than $4 billion in disaster aid as “premature” because earlier federal disaster aid remains unspent.

“Over the last three years we allocated more than $40 billion for Puerto Rico disasters and less than half of that has been spent,” Granger said.”And we’ve seen recent press reports of warehouses in Puerto Rico filled with water, diapers, food, that have not been distributed to residents in need.”

House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., said that although final recovery costs for the earthquake damage are not yet available, “the severity of the crisis means we must step up to the plate right now.”

“Delaying action would further threaten the safety and security of Puerto Ricans,” Lowey said. “Moreover, if Puerto Rico cost estimates come in lower than the amounts provided in this supplemental, remaining funding would be available for other potential disasters this year.”

Lowey said the tax breaks in the bill “complement the emergency appropriations, support working families, and encourage economic growth.”

House Republicans unsuccessfully used a motion to send the bill back to committee because it reached the House floor without any public hearings.

“Rushing to consider this bill in the House before damage assessments are even completed from recent earthquakes in Puerto Rico is ill conceived, especially when the island continues to have access to over $20 billion in unobligated disaster assistance and long-term recovery funding,” said the office of House Republican Minority Whip Steve Scalise.

Scalise’s office also said the House should await word from the administration on any emergency spending needed to address the Corona Virus and “whether urgent resources may be needed for this public health emergency.’’

However, Puerto Rico’s non voting House member, Resident Commissioner Jenniffer Gonzalez, pleaded for congressional action. She said more than 2,100 earthquakes have struck the island since Dec. 28 and the seismic activity has not stopped. Federal assistance has been given to 29 municipalities.

Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, said he voted in favor of the aid as a show of solidarity with Gonzalez but faulted Democrats for not negotiating a bipartisan agreement with Republicans.

“What’s frightening to me is the power plants that are down and probably never coming back,” Bishop said in an interview. “The island is in sad shape. If they can rework this, then the aid is still going to go there.”

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala., has not yet announced whether his committee will consider additional emergency aid for Puerto Rico.

Bishop said that if the Senate passes “a more logical bill,” it could be sent back to the House for passage with the support of additional Republicans.

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