Washington - Just as the House approved an emergency recovery aid bill for Puerto Rico after a series of recent earthquakes -on a 237-161 vote, with predominately Democratic support- the Senate Republican leadership officially put a stop to it.
The bill, approved with amendments, was already opposed by the White House, which used its official statement on the Democratic bill to launch new attacks against the island's administration and to insist that the legislation "is not necessary.
And Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (Iowa) warned yesterday that, in general terms, he agrees with the White House´s statement and that the bill will not advance.
"Unfortunately, Senate Finance Committee Republicans were not consulted as House Democrats hurriedly cobbled together their bill," said Michael Zona, a spokesman for Grassley whose committee has jurisdiction over tax issues.
Tax initiatives, which were largely approved in the House Ways and Means Committee, are spearheaded by funding from the federal Treasury for Earned Income Tax Credits (EITC) and Child Tax Credits (CTC).
A Congressional Budget Office (CBO) analysis estimated the cost of the tax measures proposed by Democrats for the island at $16.134 billion over ten years. By 2022, the CTC and EITC credits, if they become law, would have an annual impact of $1.417 billion on the island, according to the CBO.
Representative Tom Rice, a Ways and Means Republican from South Carolina, complained about tax provisions included in the bill questioning the cost of expanded earned income and child tax credits.
Democrat Rosa DeLauro (Connecticut) told Rice that Puerto Rico residents pay taxes on the payroll - Medicare and Social Security - and that the Child Tax Credit is based on those contributions.
Amendments approved on the House floor raised from $4.67 billion to $4.89 billion the funding package in emergency recovery aid included in the legislation, which House Speaker Nancy Pelosi attributed to both the Appropriations Committee chairwoman, Nita Lowey (New York), and Puerto Rican Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez (New York).
“Two weeks after devastating earthquakes struck Puerto Rico, our fellow Americans on the island still face serious challenges to their safety, health, and well-being,” said Pelosi when urging “a strong vote to provide help, healing, and hope for Puerto Rico.”
Only 17 House Republicans joined the legislation. All 220 Democrats present voted in favor. Meanwhile, 160 Republicans and independent Justin Amash (Michigan) voted against it.
Despite the White House's opposition to the spending bill, Democrats insisted they would seek to include the measure into some Republican legislative initiative that may require consensus.
Congress, not the White House, has the power to allocate funds, said Democrat David Price (North Carolina), chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee overseeing the federal Housing Department (HUD).
Among other things, the bill allows using the funds provided in the measure and those previously approved to mitigate the disaster caused by Hurricane María.
It also requires that HUD, which handles Community Development Disaster Response Program (CDBG-DR) funds- in consultation with other agencies - to publish the notice on the use of $1.932 billion in disaster relief funds that Congress approved to help rebuild Puerto Rico's power grid within 60 days.
Amendments to the bill included Commissioner Jenniffer Gonzalez's proposal to increase from $40 million to $210 million emergency nutrition assistance funds that would be made available to Nutrition Assistance Program (NAP) participants in those municipalities hit by the earthquakes.
The House also approved amendments for the U.S. Education Department to study the impact of earthquakes on the education system, and that HUD ensures that people in Puerto Rico who are not fluent in English, most of the population, have access to information on CDBG-DR projects.
Commissioner González spoke several times on the floor to refute her Republican colleagues. This is not an invention... “we need the money," she said.
After the vote, Congresswoman Velázquez sent a series of tweets to Republicans who voted against it and have a significant number of Puerto Rican voters.