U.S. Congress (GFR Media) (semisquare-x3)
U.S. Congress (GFR Media)

Washington - Democrats seek to approve, as of today, new bills intended to reopen much of the government. The U.S. government partial shutdown causes concern in Puerto Rico.

The situation arose following President Donald Trump’s demand for $ 5.7 billion to finance the construction of a U.S-Mexico border wall.

Between today and Friday, the House majority expects to - independently – pass four bills that would allow reopening the departments of the Treasury, Agriculture, Interior, and Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

In announcing this week´s legislative calendar, Democratic majority leader Steny Hoyer (Maryland), blamed President Donald Trump for the partial government shutdown and said the President is holding the government "hostage."

The House Democratic majority is hoping that bringing four bills – the same as the ones approved by both sides of the Senate at the end of the last Congress- will help to resolve the difficult situation caused by the debate on the Mexico-U.S. border wall.

Last week, just at the start of the 116th Congress, House Democrats approved two resolutions: one to extend Homeland Security funds until February 8 and another to approve the rest of the budget for the fiscal year.

However, once Trump threatened to veto them for not including funds for the wall, they were not considered by the Senate, controlled by Republicans.

Meanwhile, Senate Democratic minority leader Charles Schumer (New York) said that as the Senate majority insists on not considering new initiatives to reopen the government, they are blocking all regular legislation.

Although Republicans control the Senate (53-47), the regular process of a bill requires the vote of 60 senators . Democrats now have a majority of 235 to 199 in the House, with one seat undecided.

The Democratic strategy came hours before President Trump gave a prime-time address - first prime-time from the Oval Office - to make his case for the border wall funding and repeating that “there is a growing humanitarian and security crisis at our southern border”.

Today, there is a third meeting set between Trump and congressional leaders intended to reach an agreement to reopen the government that has been partial shutdown since December 22.

This is now the second-longest partial shutdown in U.S. history and it is affecting 800,000 federal employees, including about 4,500 in Puerto Rico who, starting Friday, will not receive their biweekly paycheck.

If shutdown continues, food assistance, housing subsidies and the release of federal relief funds to mitigate the disaster caused by Hurricane María may be affected.

During his speech to the Nation, it seemed that Trump would not declare a national emergency to - just as in wartime - secure the funds for the wall by decree.

"I do not think the President has thatauthority," Hoyer said in a meeting with journalists in his office, and he stressed that "there is no crisis, there is no invasion, there is no clear and present danger."

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said that Customs and Border Protection picked up nearly 4,000 terrorists last year "that came across our southern border." But NBC reported that “no immigrant has been arrested on the southern border on terrorism charges in recent years.”

The bills regarding the departments of Agriculture and Homeland Security would allow normalizing issues such as the delivery of food assistance and reopening national parks.

On Monday in Puerto Rico, the Secretary of Family affairs Glorimar Andújar said that Nutrition Assistance Program (PAN) funds are guaranteed until this month, which creates uncertainty if the partial government shutdowns continues in February. 

The government of Puerto Rico is evaluating the possibility of using federal funds -that were already allocated to address the emergency caused by Hurricane María- to comply with the thousands of PAN participants. Governor Rosselló Nevares said that there are funds that were granted to Puerto Rico to address the emergency and if they needed a bridge to mitigate the impact –of the shutdown- they could use them. 

However, the government of Puerto Rico also said that, while waiting for a new $ 600 million special allocation, the $ 1.27 billion granted for food assistance in October 2017 would run out in March.

The authorities also announced the renewal of an agreement for the island's government to finance the operation of the castles of El Morro and San Cristóbal until January 22.

As for HUD, its partial shutdown may adversely affect the long-term delivery of rental aid and the already slow release of funds aimed at mitigating the disaster caused by Hurricane María, such as those from the Community Development Block Grant for Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) program.

Environmental impact

On the other hand, multiple priority programs of the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Puerto Rico have been paralyzed due to the partial federal shutdown.

Brenda Reyes, an EPA employee in Puerto Rico and former vice president of Local 3911 of the American Federation of Government Employees, said that, for example, that inspections on regulated entities are not being done, that includes the Aqueducts and Sewers Authority, the Electric Power Authority, the industrial sector and the private construction sector, among others.

According to Reyes, there are also delays in grants to public and environment protection programs, which are distributed among state agencies such as the Environmental Quality Board (now under the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources), the Department of Health and the Department of Agriculture. Likewise, there are delays in the evaluation and granting of EPA permits, as well as in processing citizen complaints.

The EPA Puerto Rico office had funds to operate until December 28. On December 31, more than 40 employees were sent home. However, those EPA employees who are paid with emergency funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) have not been affected.

El Nuevo Día found out that employees of the National Weather Service, in Carolina, under the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA,), are working but they are not receiving their paycheck. 

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