While lawmakers push for more federal disaster funding in their home states after Hurricane Harvey, Hurricane Irma, and a spate of wildfires across the west caused billions in damage, hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans are still without power and running water, and they don’t have a vote in Congress.
Their governor, Ricardo Rosselló, visited Washington on Thursday to ask for more help.
But the first person Rosselló met with wasn’t President Donald Trump or Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.. It was Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., the first senator to visit Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria wreaked havoc on the U.S. territory one month ago.
Puerto Ricans can’t vote for Rubio, though thousands are expected to move to Florida after Maria destroyed most of the island’s power and roads. But the second-term Republican said Thursday that a $36.5 billion disaster relief bill passed by the House last week doesn’t do enough for the island.
The House proposal gives large sums of money to federal agencies for hurricane relief but does not include specific provisions that immediately fund rebuilding efforts in Puerto Rico.
“It’s not so much the dollar amount, it’s really how those funds would be accessed,” Rubio said. “For example, it requires ... a damage assessment. They’re not going to be able to do this in a timely fashion while they’re trying to restore power and get water and food to people. [Puerto Ricans] are today, four weeks after the storm, where Florida was 48 hours after the storm. They’re still dealing with the acute, immediate challenges.”
Rubio said he has been working with Texas Republican Sens. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn, who have both criticized the pending disaster-aid package because it lacks specific provisions, along with Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York, to make changes to the relief bill before the Senate votes on it Friday.
But Schumer said Thursday afternoon “it’s a little late” to change the legislation because it already passed the House.
“We're going to have some ideas that we're going to let the House know have to be part of it,” Schumer said. “We're not going to just have the House put it together and send it to us.”
Cornyn, the second-ranking Senate Republican, said he spoke with President Trump and Office of Budget and Management Director Mick Mulvaney who pledged another disaster relief bill in November.
Cornyn said he would work with colleagues in the western states dealing with fires, as well as Florida and representatives from Puerto Rico to put together the third relief package.
Florida Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson said he was disappointed that Trump didn’t include additional assistance for Puerto Rico and Florida’s citrus growers in his initial request to Congress last week.
A $2.5 billion request to help Florida’s citrus industry from Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam wasn’t included in the House bill last week because there wasn’t enough time to put it in.
“I’m very disappointed that the president nixed all of that additional assistance,” Nelson said, adding that “we’re going find out” if Puerto Rico has enough money to stay afloat until Congress passes another relief bill sometime in November.
“It’s easy to get impressed by some of the dollar figures that are in there which is substantial,” Rubio said. “The problem for Puerto Rico and Florida and Texas is the package is not structured in a way that actually helps us entirely. In the case of Florida it leaves out key industries that need to be addressed. In the case of Puerto Rico it fails to adequately address the liquidity issue, and that is the ability to access the funds quickly to continue basic governmental operations.”
Rubio argued that the situation in Puerto Rico is more dire than the situation facing his home state.
Rubio warned that the Puerto Rican government could shut down in the next 30-45 days if Congress doesn’t allocate funds specifically to the U.S. territory. A shutdown would be “incredibly cataclysmic” to Puerto Rico’s relief effort, Rubio said.
Rosselló met with Rubio on Thursday morning to update the senator on relief efforts before meeting Trump. Rosselló, who has been quick to publicly praise the federal government’s response in the weeks after Hurricane Maria, did not criticize Congress or the Trump response during remarks at the White House.
“I am confident that, with your commitment and with your support, Mr. President ... we will be able to come out of this in the long haul together with Puerto Rico and give the U.S. citizens the adequate resources,” Rosselló said. “Treat us the same as citizens in Texas, in Florida, and elsewhere.”
Trump lauded the disaster response in Puerto Rico, giving the effort a 10 out of 10 when asked by a reporter to grade his administration’s work.
“I’d say it was a 10,” Trump said. “I’d say it was probably the most difficult — when you talk about relief, when you talk about search, when you talk about all of the different levels, and even when you talk about lives saved. If you look at the number, I mean this was, I think, it was worse than Katrina. It was in many ways worse than anything people have ever seen.”
But Rubio said that Rosselló informed him during their meeting that the Army Corps of Engineers has yet to begin the process of power restoration even though they have been on the ground for three weeks.
“They apparently, according to the governor of Puerto Rico, have yet to execute a power-restoration contract to begin the power restoration or even the immediate work, and so that’s concerning,” Rubio said.
Rubio emphasized that he was not blaming anyone in Congress or at the White House for their response to Hurricane Maria, but that the storm was a unique event that requires a unique response from Washington.
“It’s not ill intent by anyone. ... We are addressing it in a traditional, conventional way,” Rubio said. “This is not a traditional, conventional event.”
McClatchy DC reporters Lesley Clark and Andrea Drusch contributed to this report.