A view of Congress. (AP) (semisquare-x3)
A view of Congress. (AP)

Washington - After four months of bitter partisan debates during this session, Congress approved yesterday the disaster assistance bill that, in a matter of hours or days, could have an impact of up to $1.4 billion in Puerto Rico.

Just before the start of a weeklong Memorial Day recess, the Senate broke an impasse that had delayed the approval of a bill that had a green light in the House since mid-January.

Last night, Senate Democratic minority leader Charles Schumer (New York) - after securing most of the version of the bill they had promoted - agreed with his senators and speaker Nancy Pelosi to reject allocations related to the U.S.-México border, according to Democratic sources.

Once President Donald Trump and the Republicans desisted from including language on border and immigration issues, the measure - which authorizes a total of $19.1 billion - was easily adopted in the Senate 85-8. All eight votes against were Republican.

Although both chambers went recess until June 3, if there was unanimous consent - which until last night was not guaranteed - the legislation could be approved in the House today.

The House Republican leadership agreed to the unanimous consent vote, which could take place today at 11:00 a.m., a Democrat official said.

The bill finally includes the additional $600 million in emergency nutrition assistance that the Puerto Rico government had claimed since 2018, which will soon allow for a temporary increase in the payments of the Nutrition Assistance Program (PAN, Spanish acronym).

Along with the $600 million in nutrition assistance, the measure gives the island an additional $304 million in Community Development Block Grant program for Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR), a key demand of the Democrats, acknowledged Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (Alabama).

But it also includes language with which Congress seeks to clarify that the intention of the bipartisan 2018 budget and supplemental appropriations act was to direct the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to rebuild critical public infrastructure in Puerto Rico to make it more resilient, including structure not damaged by the natural disaster.

According to the chairwoman of the U.S. House Appropriations Committee, Democrat Nita Lowey (New York), that could represent another $500 million for the island. Neither the Senate leadership nor La Fortaleza made comments on the estimate set by Lowey who is in charge of initiating the allocation process.

The bill also maintains the proposal to grant $5 million to the U.S. Department of Agriculture to study the impact of emergency nutrition assistance in Puerto Rico.

However, the $304 million in CDBG-DR funds will not be available immediately. The bill indicates that they will not be delivered until Puerto Rico reaches an agreement on the permanent works to be funded by FEMA under section 428, a procedure that will not be completed until at least October.

The measure also requires publishing the terms for CDBG-DR mitigation fund grants within 90 days. That would apply to an $8.9 billion package that the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has yet to deliver to the island.

However, the delivery of those funds will not be available either at least until October since it required that FEMA and the Puerto Rican government agree on all the estimates related to section 428, according to an analysis.

Senator Schumer hold his claim for more funds for the island for weeks, at a time when President Trump wanted to block access to new allocations and accused the government of Puerto Rico of corruption. In that sense, Schumer proclaimed victory.

"It’s good that Republicans finally came to their senses and realized that Puerto Rico and other disaster-impacted areas deserve to be treated fairly and that extraneous provisions shouldn’t be added to the disaster relief package," he said.

In the Senate, where Republicans needed Democratic votes to reach the 60 required to pass a bill, Republican majority leader Mitch McConnell (Kentucky) also acknowledged that elements unrelated to the piece prevented the final approval.

 McConnell warned early yesterday that, without a new vote, he would not suspend work until early June "because one way or another, the Senate is not leaving without taking action," he said.

The Governor’s response

Ricardo Rosselló Nevares thanked the Democrats for acting in favor of the island.

"At one point it was said that Puerto Rico would not get one single cent more. Thankfully, we see today that there are more people in Washington that recognize Puerto Rico needs to go through its recovery," the governor said.

The governor said the $304 million in CDBG-DR funds could be used to match local funds required by the federal government for construction projects.

Earlier in the week, it had been announced that the differences over the disaster assistance bill were no longer the funds for Puerto Rico, which still looking to recover from Hurricane María that caused nearly 3,000 deaths and $100,000 in damage on September 20, 2017.

Senator Rick Scott (Florida) noted that he was the first Republican to propose a $600 million in nutrition aid.

Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González said the White House changed its opposition to the $600 million in February after she and Republican senators met with Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney.

González thanked Republican Senators Scott, Marco Rubio (Florida), David Perdue (Georgia) and Johnny Isakson (Georgia) for their support.

In addition to nutrition assistance funds, bills approved January 16 and May 10 in the House included a new waiver from FEMA matching requirements for Puerto Rico – local governments have to match funds in order to access reimbursements for emergency measures related to a natural disaster- and $25 million for the restoration of the Caño Martín Peña. That part was left out.

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