House Approves Puerto Rico Aid Package, but a Path Forward Is Murky

WASHINGTON — The House on Friday approved sending $4.89 billion in emergency recovery aid and additional tax relief to Puerto Rico after a series of devastating earthquakes, most likely reigniting a feud with President Trump over his objections to sending federal money to an island battered by national disasters and mismanagement.

The $4.89 billion funding package includes $3.3 billion in grant funding for disaster relief, $210 million to bolster the island’s food stamp program and $18 million for technical assistance that would in part support the faltering electric grid in Puerto Rico and other territories.

It includes a tax relief package that, among other provisions, expands child tax credit benefits for residents of Puerto Rico and increases the amount of money collected from rum excise taxes diverted back to the governments of Puerto Rico and the United States Virgin Islands.

“Our fellow Americans in Puerto Rico need our help — unless we step up to the plate right now, we further jeopardize their safety and security,” said Representative Nita M. Lowey, Democrat of New York and the chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee.

The bill passed on a 237 to 161 margin, carried predominately by Democratic support.

But Mr. Trump has been hostile to the idea of sending federal money to the island, and the White House has warned that it will veto the package. And Senate Republicans, emerging from the impeachment trial, may have similar reservations about the legislation, particularly given the administration’s objections.

“We haven’t focused on that,” said Senator Richard C. Shelby, Republican of Alabama and chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. “But historically, we’ve never turned our backs on our own folks.”

The administration raised concerns about Puerto Rico’s “history of inadequate financial controls over regular government operations” and the “multiple high-profile cases of corruption” that have “marred distribution of aid.” In a statement, the administration also accused the House of “rushing this bill through its process — and seeking to push taxpayer dollars out the door” before the damage had been fully assessed.

“While I, too, have been frustrated with the amount of time it takes the federal government to distribute funds after disaster, appropriating funds before we know what is truly needed is not the answer,” said Representative Kay Granger of Texas, the top Republican on the Appropriations panel. Republicans also objected to the decision to tie a tax relief package to a spending bill, arguing that the two should be separate.

In impassioned speeches on the House floor, several Democrats argued that the legislation was a vital step to ensure the territories are treated in the same way that states would be. While Puerto Rico and the United States Virgin Islands each elect delegates to Congress, their representatives do not have voting rights in the House.

“When we have a disaster, yes, we need more money,” declared Representative Stacey E. Plaskett, the Democratic delegate who represents the Virgin Islands. “Because we have underfunding and our infrastructure is a lot more fragile than the rest of the country — because this body has not done its job.”

Allocating and spending emergency aid for Puerto Rico has been politically fraught during the Trump administration, even as the island has struggled to recover from historically catastrophic hurricanes in 2017 and 2018 and a series of earthquakes last month.

Mr. Trump has personally clashed with the island’s leadership and objected to sending aid to the island. And even when aid for the recovery secured congressional approval, the administration has been slow to distribute the funds and attached stringent caveats that have restricted how some of that money could be spent.

Mr. Trump and his administration have also pointed to mismanagement on the island as evidence of corruption and a factor in the slow recovery. The governor fired multiple cabinet officials and ordered an investigation after unused emergency supplies were discovered in a warehouse last month.

But disaster-prone states have had more documented public corruption cases — and often less federal oversight. And despite Mr. Trump’s repeated castigation of Puerto Rican officials, it was a former top FEMA administrator working on the island who was arrested in September for taking bribes during the island’s recovery from Hurricane Maria.

Mr. Trump announced on Friday that he had named Rear Adm. Peter J. Brown of the Coast Guard to oversee federal efforts to rebuild Puerto Rico as his special representative for Puerto Rico’s Disaster Recovery.

With thousands of the island’s critical infrastructure projects still in limbo, a nonpartisan watchdog organization on Thursday called for FEMA to improve guidance for the territory’s recovery and cost estimates. With about 10,000 damaged sites still in need of repair, island officials estimated it needs $132 billion over the next eight years to completely repair its infrastructure.

Puerto Rican officials told the group, the Government Accountability Office, that they were concerned about using outdated guidance, and remain unsure about what guidance is in effect. Through a public assistance program, FEMA had developed guidance and policy specifically to aid Puerto Rico through the recovery process. More than 85 percent of federal aid from FEMA distributed since 2017 has gone toward debris removal and power restoration, according to the report.

The G.A.O. recommended that the two entities — FEMA and the Puerto Rican government — work together to understand what is needed for project approval in order to more quickly begin work, and tasked FEMA with providing access to the most current policy and guidance.

“Ultimately we hope these recommendations can clear up all the confusion and complexities around trying to get to these cost estimates for these projects so they can get started rebuilding Puerto Rico,” said Chris Currie, the director of the Government Accountability Office team that wrote the report.

Patricia Mazzei contributed reporting.

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