US President Donald Trump speaks to reporters upon his return to the White House on March 24, 2019 in Washington, DC after spending the weekend in Florida, declaring he had been completely exonerated after his campaign was cleared of colluding with Russia in the 2016 election campaign. (Photo by Eric BARADAT / AFP)        (Photo credit should read ERIC BARADAT/AFP/Getty Images)
Trump takes swipe at Puerto Rico relief aid
01:57 - Source: CNN
Washington CNN  — 

Key lawmakers expressed optimism Monday that an agreement on disaster relief may be reached soon, but for now there is still no final deal as millions of Americans affected by hurricanes, floods and wildfires continue to face the consequences of recent natural disasters.

“My sense is that it is getting much closer,” Sen. John Cornyn told CNN on Monday, adding, “I think we are closer than we have been.” But the Texas Republican added, “Puerto Rico is still the challenge.”

Aides said disaster relief talks are continuing and, while still not near a final agreement, had advanced back to the level of the staff of the respective party leaders in both chambers, which was a signal that negotiations may start to pick up in the near future. Still, key outstanding issues remained unresolved and whether President Donald Trump would ultimately back any final deal was still an open question as senators and staff from the Senate Appropriations Committee continued to search for an agreement.

“They (senior staff) had good meetings yesterday,” Alabama Republican Sen. Richard Shelby, the chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, told CNN. “Working on language, trying to work through the Puerto Rican thing … they haven’t got a resolution to it. …. There are a few obstacles there they have to work through.” Sen. Patrick Leahy, the ranking member on the committee, told CNN, “I think we can easily reach an agreement,” but the Vermont Democrat added that any agreement “has to be for all Americans.”

It’s been more than a month since the Senate failed to advance competing relief proposals – one from Republicans and one from Democrats – amid a partisan dispute over how much assistance to give to Puerto Rico. In their proposal, Democrats pressed for more aid than Republicans and the President wanted to provide.

The President on Monday accused Democrats of “blocking much needed disaster relief” to states over aid to Puerto Rico. Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer responded to the President by saying that “Democrats believe in meeting the needs of all disaster survivors.”

Senate Republicans made a new offer to Democrats last week that included additional aid to Puerto Rico beyond what Republicans had initially proposed, but it’s unclear whether that will be able to break the stalemate.

The offer includes roughly $300 million for community development block grants for disaster recovery in Puerto Rico, according to a Senate GOP aide. That would come in addition to the $600 million in nutrition assistance for Puerto Rico that was included in the initial Republican proposal that failed to advance in the Senate last month.

The proposal includes requirements, however, that need to be met to unlock the additional Puerto Rico aid, including that the US territory would need to spend 75% of community development block grant funds that have already been appropriated to be eligible for the new assistance. The aide described the requirements as “financial controls” intended to “protect taxpayer dollars from waste, fraud and abuse.”

Republican Sens. David Perdue of Georgia and Rick Scott of Florida sent a letter to their colleagues on Monday calling for a vote on disaster relief this week. In the letter, they called on senators “to work together and get a deal done and push both party’s leaders to bring a bill to the floor.”

“There should be a vote this week,” they wrote. “We see no reason to delay it any longer.”

House Democrats, meanwhile, are pushing ahead with their own disaster relief package this week.

The House is expected to vote on Friday on a $17.2 billion proposal that includes $600 million in nutrition assistance for Puerto Rico and $3 billion to address flooding in the Midwest and other natural disasters.