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The Journal Gazette

Friday, October 13, 2017 1:00 am

House passes aid bill; Trump goes on attack

Associated Press

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State Republicans vote against relief

Four Republicans from Indiana, including Rep. Jim Banks, R-3rd, voted Thursday against a disaster relief bill approved overwhelmingly by the U.S. House.

The House voted 353-69 in favor of spending $36.5 billion in disaster aid that would help recovery efforts in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico, all struck by recent hurricanes, and Western states damaged by wildfires.

All the no votes came from Republicans, including Banks, who represents northeast Indiana, and Reps. Jackie Walorski, R-2nd; Todd Rokita, R-4th; and Luke Messer, R-6th.

Banks said in a statement that he disliked the proposal because it did not cut federal spending elsewhere to offset the aid money and because the legislation “includes billions in spending on items unrelated to disaster relief and writes off massive debt accrued by the National Flood Insurance Program without major and necessary reforms.”

The relief bill, which includes $16 billion to bolster the National Flood Insurance Program, goes next to the Senate for consideration.

– Brian Francisco, The Journal Gazette

WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump lashed out at hurricane-devastated Puerto Rico on Thursday, insisting in tweets that the federal government can't keep sending help “forever” and suggesting the U.S. territory was to blame for its financial struggles.

His broadsides triggered an outcry from Democrats in Washington and officials on the island, which has been reeling since Hurricane Maria struck three weeks ago, leaving death and destruction in an unparalleled humanitarian crisis.

San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz tweeted that the president's comments were “unbecoming” to a commander in chief and “seem more to come from a 'Hater in Chief.'”

“Mr. President, you seem to want to disregard the moral imperative that your administration has been unable to fulfill,” the mayor said in a statement.

The debate played out as the House passed, on a sweeping 353-69 vote, a $36.5 billion disaster aid package that includes assistance for Puerto Rico's financially strapped government. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said the government needs to ensure that Puerto Rico can “begin to stand on its own two feet” and said the U.S. has “got to do more to help Puerto Rico rebuild its own economy.” He plans to visit Puerto Rico today.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders praised the House action Thursday night and promised the administration “will continue to work with Congress to provide the resources necessary to recover and rebuild from the hurricanes” and the wildfires in California.

Forty-five deaths in Puerto Rico have been blamed on Maria, about 85 percent of Puerto Rico residents still lack electricity and the government says it hopes to have electricity restored completely by March.

Mixed messages

Both Trump and Vice President Mike Pence visited the island last week to reaffirm the U.S. commitment to the recovery. But Trump's tweets Thursday raised questions about whether the U.S. would remain there for the long haul. He tweeted, “We cannot keep FEMA, the Military & the First Responders, who have been amazing (under the most difficult circumstances) in P.R. forever!”

He added, “electric and all infrastructure was disaster before hurricanes.” He blamed Puerto Rico for its financial crisis and “a total lack of accountability.”

The tweets conflicted with Trump's past statements on Puerto Rico. During an event last week honoring the heritage of Hispanics the president said, “We will be there all the time to help Puerto Rico recover, restore, rebuild.”

White House chief of staff John Kelly, speaking to reporters, said the military and other emergency responders were trying very hard to “work themselves out of a job.” Reassuring the island, Kelly said the U.S. will “stand with those American citizens in Puerto Rico until the job is done.”

At the Pentagon, Lt. Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr. told reporters “there's still plenty of work to be done” by the military troops in Puerto Rico. He said there was no current plan to withdraw troops who are supporting FEMA's recovery efforts.

Financial woes

Democrats said Trump's tweets were deplorable, given that the 3 million-plus U.S. citizens on Puerto Rico are confronting the kind of hardships that would draw howls of outrage if they affected a state.

One-third of the island lacks clean running water and just 8 percent of its roads are passable, according to government statistics.

After years of economic challenges, Puerto Rico was already in the process of restructuring much of its $74 billion in debt before the hurricane struck.

Puerto Rico lost population and jobs after Congress eliminated special tax breaks in 2006, making it more difficult to repay its debts. Yet lenders continued to extend credit to Puerto Rico despite its economic struggles, while pension costs strained Puerto Rico's government and its infrastructure deteriorated.