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How a fight over disaster aid for Puerto Rico fits into Trump's 2020 reelection bid

Key Points
  • The Senate's inability to pass disaster relief for Puerto Rico and states ravaged by natural disasters has major implications for elections next year.
  • Democrats want to put pressure on President Donald Trump over his widely criticized response to devastating hurricanes in the U.S. commonwealth, where a key food stamp program ran out of funding.
  • Meanwhile, Republicans are accusing Democrats of holding up needed aid to states affected by hurricanes and floods that could be crucial in next year's presidential and Senate elections.
President Donald Trump tosses rolls of paper towels to people at a hurricane relief distribution center at Calvary Chapel in San Juan, Puerto Rico, October 3, 2017.
Jonathan Ernst | Reuters

A disagreement over more hurricane aid for Puerto Rico has stalled a sprawling plan to provide relief for the island and other parts of the United States ravaged by storms and wildfires.

As the Senate fights over what should go into the package, the hurricane-battered U.S. commonwealth and several states wait for aid. The politics of President Donald Trump's 2020 reelection campaign and other congressional races next year are partly to blame for the stalemate.

The GOP-held Senate failed to advance two separate disaster relief plans on Monday. One backed by Republicans and opposed by Democrats would put $13.5 billion toward aid for states such as California, Florida, Georgia and North Carolina, while authorizing $600 million for the key food stamp program in Puerto Rico. The funding for the program has run out as Trump reportedly looks for ways to send less federal money to the island.

Democrats argued the Senate GOP plan did not do enough to boost the U.S. commonwealth, where an estimated 3,000 people died after Hurricane Maria in 2017. But Republicans voted down a $14.2 billion measure passed by the Democratic-held House, which would have put an additional $700 million toward rebuilding Puerto Rico and some states.

The politics surrounding next year's elections partly drove the inability to pass a relief plan. Democrats want to pressure Trump over his administration's widely criticized response to the 2017 hurricanes that ravaged Puerto Rico, especially as the Puerto Rican population grows in key electoral states such as Florida and Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, Republicans want to hit Democrats for holding up aid to states such as Florida, Texas, Georgia, North Carolina and Iowa, which will help to decide not only the presidential election but also control of the Senate next year.

President Donald Trump speaks with Governor Ricardo Rossello of Puerto Rico during a meeting in the Oval Office at the White House on October 19, 2017 in Washington, D.C.
Kevin Dietsch | Getty Images

Trump, who has sparred with Puerto Rican officials over hurricane relief and shown sensitivity to criticism of his administration's efforts in the commonwealth, claimed Tuesday that the island got $91 billion in relief, "more money than has ever been gotten for a hurricane before." The U.S. has set aside only $41 billion for recovery so far, and recovery costs from Hurricane Katrina in 2005 topped $120 billion, according to The Washington Post.

In a series of tweets, Trump also argued that the island's politicians spend money "foolishly and corruptly" and "take" from the United States. He claimed the U.S. "cannot continue to "hurt our Farmers and States with these massive payments" to Puerto Rico. The island is part of the United States and its residents are U.S. citizens.

"The best thing that ever happened to Puerto Rico is President Donald J. Trump," the president said in a tweet. Only 15 percent of Puerto Ricans gave Trump "excellent/very good/good" marks for his hurricane response, versus 80 percent who rated it "fair/poor," according to a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll taken in July and August 2018.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has accused Trump of putting the needs of states over relief for the dire situation in Puerto Rico. Speaking on the Senate floor Monday, he said that "our fellow Americans deserve the resources needed to rebuild and recover," which Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., have "refused to provide."

McConnell, for his part, called the GOP-backed measure "the only bill on the table with any provision for Midwest flooding" and the only proposal that could get Trump's support "in time to deliver urgent relief on the nutrition assistance in Puerto Rico."

The political jostling comes as candidates for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination have increasingly made the island a priority. Candidates such as Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., made stops there earlier this year, though they did not take firm stances on whether Puerto Rico should gain statehood, according to Politico. Politicians such as Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello have pushed to make the island a state.

While Puerto Rico does not vote in the presidential election, it awards delegates in the presidential primary process. Still, presidential swing states that Trump won in 2016 — Florida, Pennsylvania and Texas — saw the first-, third- and fourth-largest population inflows from Puerto Rico from 2005 to 2016, according to the University of Florida's Bureau of Economic and Business Research.

Five of the senators running for the Democratic nomination — Warren, Sanders, Cory Booker of New Jersey, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York — voted for the House-passed plan which would have included the $700 million in aid. All of them voted against the GOP proposal without the additional relief. Another candidate, Sen. Kamala Harris of California, did not vote on either proposal.

Expect Senate Democrats to face sustained criticism from Republicans over opposing the GOP-backed relief bill. It would provide aid for flood damage in the early nominating state of Iowa, along with relief for hurricane damage in Florida, North Carolina and Georgia — all states that could host competitive presidential and Senate contests next year.

Winning those states could go a long way toward helping Trump hold the White House and Senate Republicans keep their majority. They currently hold a 53-47 edge in the chamber.

But the GOP has to defend 22 seats next year, versus 12 for Democrats.

— The Associated Press contributed to this report

Correction: The House-passed plan includes $700 million in additional disaster relief. 

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