Part of the final language of a $19.1 billion disaster relief bill approved last week by the Senate would force the Trump administration to finally release $16 billion in aid approved by Congress after disasters in 2017, freeing money which has been put on hold by the White House for disaster mitigation efforts in Puerto Rico, Texas, and other states.
"It unlocks billions of dollars Congress has previously appropriated for Puerto Rico, and other communities across the country that the Trump administration has held back," said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), who helped negotiate the final compromise, which still is awaiting final approval in the House.
Once signed into law, the disaster bill provision would start a 90 day 'shot clock' to force the release of the $16 billion in disaster mitigation funds approved by Congress in early 2018.
For months, lawmakers in both parties have pleaded with the Trump Administration to give that money to state and local governments, in what has been seen as an intentional bureaucratic slowdown by the Trump Administration - for unknown reasons.
More than half of that aid - almost $9 billion - would be destined for Puerto Rico, which has routinely drawn the scorn of President Trump.
The disaster deal also forces HUD to release $16 billion in already approved disaster aid which has been held back by the Trump Administration - over $8 billion for Puerto Rico, $4 billion for Texas pic.twitter.com/IUOpdG11f0— Jamie Dupree (@jamiedupree) May 23, 2019
The bill also includes a provision requiring the administration to finally make available to Puerto Rico the 8.9 billion dollars in CDBG-DR funding that have been withheld. This is critical for our reconstruction. @ricardorossello— La Fortaleza (@fortalezapr) May 23, 2019
Almost $4.4 billion of the money being held back would go to Texas, and the delay has left Republican officials from the state puzzled at best.
"It's critical we get this money out of Washington and into the hands of those who need it," Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) said on the floor of the Senate.
Ironically, money headed for the Lone Star State was delayed even more last Friday, when Rep. Chip Roy (R-TX) objected to the effort to push the compromise disaster plan through the House without a formal roll call vote - with Roy saying the full House should return from a break for Memorial Day to vote on the measure.
The bill had been easily approved a day earlier in the Senate, on a vote of 85-8.
Roy's move further frustrated lawmakers in his own state who can't get a square answer out of the Trump Administration as to why over $4 billion in already approved aid is still not being paid out.
"Blocking this bill is nothing more than partisan gamesmanship," said Rep. Lizzie Fletcher (D-TX).
This delay—at the start of hurricane season, no less—is an affront. Blocking this bill is nothing more than partisan gamesmanship—the very thing my constituents have told me they want to end in Washington. https://t.co/tJ9ccQiwdB pic.twitter.com/saa972j6bP— Rep. Lizzie Fletcher (@RepFletcher) May 24, 2019
Democrats will try again to ask 'unanimous consent' to approve the disaster bill on Tuesday, but an objection is expected from the GOP side.
The same thing may be repeated on Friday.
If the bill is not passed this week, then the full House would vote on it at some point after lawmakers return to work the week of June 3.
That would mean the money - meant to help communities prepare for things like hurricanes - would not become available until around Labor Day, which is usually the height of the hurricane season.