President Donald Trump on Thursday pushed back against federal aid for Puerto Rico as the U.S. House of Representatives prepared to consider $36.5 billion in emergency relief for the U.S. territory and other hurricane-hit areas, as well as fire-ravaged California.
Officials are expected to approve the bipartisan measure that will also provide relief to the storm-struck areas of Florida, Texas and the U.S. Virgin Islands, and leaders of both major parties have lauded the bill.
But Trump, in several Twitter posts early on Thursday criticized Puerto Rico for "a total lack of accountability," saying "electric and all infrastructure was disaster before hurricanes."
While he noted it was up to "Congress to decide how much to spend," he said: "We cannot keep FEMA, the Military & the First Responders, who have been amazing (under the most difficult circumstances) in P.R. forever!"
"Puerto Rico survived the Hurricanes, now a financial crisis looms largely of their own making." says Sharyl Attkisson. A total lack of.....— @realDonaldTrump
...accountability say the Governor. Electric and all infrastructure was disaster before hurricanes. Congress to decide how much to spend....— @realDonaldTrump
...We cannot keep FEMA, the Military & the First Responders, who have been amazing (under the most difficult circumstances) in P.R. forever!— @realDonaldTrump
When asked about Trump's tweets at a White House briefing on Thursday, Chief of Staff John Kelly said the U.S. would "stand with those American citizens in Puerto Rico until the job is done."
Kelly said Trump's comments were reflecting a reality concerning the U.S. military and FEMA, whether the response is concerning damage to Puerto Rico or Texas and Florida, the two states which bore the brunt of recent hurricanes.
"The minute you go anywhere as a first responder, and this would apply certainly to military, you are trying very hard and working very hard to work yourself out of a job," he said, so that the affected area can begin to rebuild.
It was Kelly's first appearance at the daily press briefing since succeeding Reince Priebus as chief of staff in July. He said that as chief of staff he is in frequent contact with Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello, and that the pair have enjoyed a strong working relationship while dealing with the crisis.
The bill includes $18.7 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency's disaster relief fund. Of that amount, $4.9 billion is earmarked for loans to local governments to ensure that the cash-strapped Puerto Rico can keep government programs operating beyond Oct. 31.
Other funds include $576.5 million for the federal government's wildfire control efforts. Some $16 billion would go towards the National Flood Insurance Program to help it cover claims after reaching its borrowing limit.
Once passed by the Republican-led House, the Senate, also controlled by Republicans, is expected to take up the package later this month after it returns from a week-long recess.
Republican and Democratic lawmakers, however, said even more money would likely be needed later.
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"These funds are vital right now, in the near term, to get the aid where it is needed most," House appropriations committee chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen, a Republican, said.
"More assistance will be required in the near future," he added, saying his panel was monitoring the crises as they unfold.
'Much more needs to be done'
Democratic Representative Nydia Velazquez of New York, which has a large Puerto Rican community, said the relief package was "just the start" of federal aid to the island, where large areas remain without electricity or running water three weeks after Hurricane Maria made landfall.
"Much more needs to be done, but, for now the bill includes critical measures that the island needs in the short term to respond to this once-in-a-generation humanitarian crisis," Velazquez said.
Puerto Rico is burdened with nearly $72 billion in pre-hurricane debt that is being overseen by a federally created oversight board.
Velazquez said the funds earmarked for loans to local governments would assist Puerto Rico's "liquidity crisis" and that steps must be taken to ensure that creditors are unable to access funds meant for disaster relief.