Tensions over a disaster aid bill that would give badly-needed assistance to struggling areas across the country came to a head on Friday as the House voted to once again approve the bill despite threats from President Donald Trump calling on Republicans to oppose the effort.
On a 257 to 150 vote, with 34 Republicans breaking ranks, the $19 billion bill easily cleared the House and will now head to the upper chamber. The relief package’s future remains uncertain, however, with the White House still opposed to more funding for hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico.
In addition to funding for Puerto Rico, the package contains relief for farmers and communities across the country who are struggling to recover after hurricanes, wildfires, flooding, and other disasters. It is also a $5 billion increase over the $14 billion bill that the House passed in January.
But the vote flew in defiance of the president, who has repeatedly tried to stall the relief effort. Trump called for Republicans to oppose the bill in advance of the vote, arguing without explanation that it would harm the mainland United States.
“House Republicans should not vote for the BAD DEMOCRAT Disaster Supplemental Bill which hurts our States, Farmers & Border Security,” Trump wrote in a tweet Thursday. In a follow-up comment several hours later, he emphasized, “Republicans must stick together!”
Trump’s comments came as lawmakers again sparred over the contentious aid bill. Democrats have stood by the bill’s inclusion of $600 million in nutrition assistance for Puerto Rico despite the president’s objections. Republicans, meanwhile, are under pressure to bring assistance to areas in the South and Midwest that are reeling from the impacts of recent natural disasters, including Hurricane Michael and a deluge of spring flooding.
The president’s comments, however, failed to sway the more than 30 Republicans who ultimately voted for the bill regardless.
Under the current aid bill, billions would go to the loss of crops destroyed during 2018 and 2019 due to an onslaught of flooding, tornadoes, wildfires, Hurricanes Michael and Florence, and other disasters. Funding for fishery recovery, rebuilding efforts, and resiliency projects are also covered by the sprawling, 78-page bill.
The package has sections devoted to numerous agencies including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Labor Department, and Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), among others.
The contested money for Puerto Rico in the bill rests largely on funding for nutrition assistance on the island. Since Maria hit in 2017, Puerto Rico has faced an ongoing exodus as residents have left for the mainland United States, leaving behind a health and education system in disarray. The island suffered the largest blackout in U.S. history following the hurricane and Puerto Rico’s electrical grid remains shaky and unstable.
Lack of access to many basic necessities has heightened food insecurity on the island, which has long struggled economically and has faced a recession for the past 12 years. Puerto Rico’s first nutrition assistance increase expired in March, imperiling many Puerto Ricans reliant on aid. The island imports around 85% of its food and more than 40% of the population qualifies for food stamps.
Democrats have pushed for the funds Puerto Ricans say are essential to their well-being, but Trump has repeatedly resisted their efforts.
The president has falsely claimed the island has already received $91 billion in funding from the government. This number is incorrect — in reality Puerto Rico has only received around $41 billion in aid, much of which has not been distributed to the island.
Meanwhile, as the White House has stalled on disaster aid, tensions have mounted in areas like the Florida Panhandle, which is working to recover from Hurricane Michael. Residents in the region have said they feel abandoned by lawmakers and local officials have lobbied for relief.
During a 2020 campaign visit on Wednesday, Trump pledged $448 million for the area and argued that Democrats have stood in the way of aid. He also pitted Puerto Ricans against other disaster survivors, repeating again the incorrect $91 billion statistic.
“The Democrats say they want to give more and more to Puerto Rico,” the president said at the time. “I have a great relationship with the people of Puerto Rico, but it hasn’t been fair how they’ve treated us from the standpoint of their leaders because they complain, they want more money.”
At the White House the next day, Trump told reporters that Democrats are “hurting Florida” and holding up money from southern states.
Democrats fired back and accused Republicans of delaying the funds. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) argued at a Thursday news conference that, “our Democratic majority is advancing a robust, urgently needed relief bill for disaster-struck communities” and said that while Republicans “delay and drag their feet,” areas like the Midwest remain in need of aid.
The willingness of some Republicans in the House to break ranks with the White House reflects growing tensions that will continue to play out as the Senate considers its own disaster bill.
Some in the Senate have expressed frustration with Trump, including Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby (R-AL). The senator has reportedly clashed with the White House over efforts to include border wall funding in the bill, in addition to freeing up port maintenance funding for Alabama. Others, like Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL), have laid the blame squarely on Democrats.
With the bill now out of the House, pressure will be on the Senate to find a compromise. As of Friday, it was unclear how many Republicans in the upper chamber might be willing to buck the White House.