Nation & World

Disaster aid for Iowa caught in U.S. Senate stalemate

More help for Puerto Rico's hurricane aftermath is sticking point

U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa
U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa
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WASHINGTON — The fight between President Donald Trump and Democrats over help for Puerto Rico leaves a major disaster aid bill that includes money for Iowa flood recovery languishing as lawmakers prepare to head home for a two-week recess.

The stalemate has produced a bitter round of partisan finger-pointing in the Senate, with Republicans accusing Democrats of playing politics and Democrats criticizing the GOP for holding out against additional spending for Puerto Rico’s slow recovery from Hurricane Maria.

“The aid we seek is what Americans have always done when there’s a disaster. We all come together and aid those areas,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said. “It’s bewildering that Republican colleagues have caved to President Trump’s what can be called a temper tantrum.”

But Republicans from hard-hit areas like the flooded Midwest and the storm-ravaged South have grown increasingly frustrated with the Democrats’ stance.

“There are still a number of communities in Iowa and across the Midwest that remain underwater with our flooding,” said Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa. “We don’t want to see this as a political football.”

The flooding in Iowa has brought an immediate political dimension to the standoff, as Ernst and Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, have questioned how Senate Democrats who are running for president can campaign in Iowa while simultaneously opposing an aid bill that helps the state — which in February will hold the first-in-the-nation caucuses.

According to Roll Call, Democratic hopefuls Cory Booker of New Jersey, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts voted earlier this month against a procedural motion to allow consideration of the aid bill. Sen. Kamala Harris of California was not present for the vote. She was not available for questions from a reporter after a rally Wednesday night in Iowa City.

That political argument is likely to be amplified over the coming weeks as lawmakers return to their home states, meet with constituents and hold public events.

Ernst and Grassley, for instance, are scheduled to hold a field hearing next Wednesday in western Iowa where they will take testimony from local dignitaries and Army Corps of Engineers officials.

At stake on Capitol Hill is a sweeping $13.45 billion disaster aid package that would send money all over the nation. The bill addresses damage from hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, flooding and other natural disasters and includes relief for farmers, assistance for veterans’ health facilities and money to restore highways.

The legislation also contains $600 million for Puerto Rico’s food stamp program — money the Trump administration opposed but agreed to at the urging of Republican senators as the price for passing the larger bill.

Trump has repeatedly complained about Puerto Rico, accusing leaders of the U.S. territory of incompetence and mismanagement and questioning why more money should be sent to the island.

But Democrats contend hundreds of millions of dollars more is required for Puerto Rico’s other needs, including repairs to schools and hospitals.

Democrats in the House unveiled a new disaster aid bill of their own this week, with a larger price tag — $17.2 billion — than the Senate GOP version, including more generous aid for Puerto Rico. The bill also includes provisions from Rep. Cindy Axne, a Democrat whose district includes some of the worst flooding in Iowa, that would open aid for the state from a variety of federal agencies including the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

But Republicans say the Democratic bill includes unacceptable provisions like language that would prevent military construction or defense funds from going to Trump’s border wall.

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The House is expected to pass its legislation after returning from the recess, but that’s unlikely to unlock the stalemate in the Senate.

Molly Duffy of The Gazette contributed to this report.

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