House approves $36 billion in disaster aid, responding to wildfires and Puerto Rico crisis

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Rafael Reyes embraces his wife Xarelis Negron and his son Xariel as they stand next to their belongings, in front of the remains of their home destroyed by Hurricane Maria, in the San Lorenzo neighborhood of Morovis, Puerto Rico, Saturday, Oct. 7, 2017. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)

The House voted Thursday to approve $36.5 billion in disaster aid, approving special loans to keep local governments in the Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Island afloat after Hurricane Maria and a new package of funds to combat the wildfires plaguing the west.

The bill passed hours after President Trump tweeted, “We cannot keep FEMA, the Military & the First Responders, who have been amazing (under the most difficult circumstances) in P.R. forever!”

That sentiment was rejected Friday by lawmakers of both parties, who called for swift passage of a bill that largely mirrors a White House demand for aid. It includes $18.7 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s main relief fund, as well as the cancellation of $16 billion in debt owed by the National Flood Insurance Program, allowing it to continue paying claims incurred due to hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria. The governments of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands would have access to $4.9 billion in special loans that will allow them to continuing paying employees and vendors.

Jenniffer González-Colón (R), Puerto Rico’s nonvoting member of the House, said many thousands of her constituents are without access to power, clean water or reliable communications. “This is not the time to focus on where and when resources are going to be withdrawn from Puerto Rico,” she said.

Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D-N.Y.), a native of the U.S. territory, railed against Trump’s tweet on the House floor as an “outrage” and an “insult.”

“It is an abdication of the president’s solemn duty to protect the safety and the security of the American people,” she said.

The bill passed the House on a 353-69 vote; the Senate is expected to take up the bill next week and send it to the White House for Trump’s signature.

All 69 members opposed were Republicans, most of whom objected because the bill does not offset the emergency spending with cuts elsewhere in the federal budget.

“America is at a tipping point,” Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.), chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, wrote in a letter to colleagues Wednesday explaining his opposition. “Republicans control the White House and Congress and we cannot ignore or further enable our debt crisis. We have no excuses and no scapegoats. It is time for tough choices and responsible governing.”

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