WASHINGTON — House Democrats are considering legal action to force President Donald Trump to release long-delayed aid for the nature-ravaged residents of Puerto Rico, Democratic leaders announced Tuesday.
Slamming the “malpractice of the administration” for distributing only a tiny fraction of the $20.2 billion Congress has passed to help the U.S. commonwealth, Democratic Conference Chairman Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., said Democrats were launching an all-out push to end the White House foot dragging.
“We’re going to use an all-hands-on-deck approach,” Jeffries said, speaking to reporters after the Democrats’ weekly meeting. “The president’s refusal to spend a dime on these American citizens who are in peril is just a stunning abdication of his responsibility.”
The administration has only made one $1.5 billion allocation of community block grant disaster relief available to Puerto Rico out of five major block grant allocations passed after 2017’s hurricanes ravaged the island. At last count, less than 1% of that first pot of aid had been spent. More than $18 billion from four other allocations — for renovating damaged homes and rebuilding the electrical grid — remains locked up by the White House.
The House’s new determination to put the focus back on Puerto Rico came after New York Rep. Nydia Velazquez made an emotional plea to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her fellow Democrats in their closed-door meeting, sources told the New York Daily News.
Velazquez, who was born in Puerto Rico, told of a young girl who died because she couldn’t get to a hospital and of people sleeping in the streets after the series of earthquakes that rocked the island in recent weeks. She then threatened to march over to the Senate and demand help from Florida Republican Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, who have growing numbers of Puerto Ricans fleeing to their state.
“I’ll get arrested if I have to,” Velazquez told her colleagues with tears brimming in her eyes, the sources said. “Something has to be done.”
Velazquez later told the Daily News that releasing the aid was “a matter of life and death.”
“We need to look at every available option to get HUD to obey the law and release the funds Congress already approved for Puerto Rico. If that means lawsuits or additional legislation, I’m all for it,” Velazquez said. “This is a matter of life and death for our fellow citizens in Puerto Rico, and Congress needs to act decisively to compel HUD to follow the law and release this assistance.”
Exactly what legal action the House could take appears uncertain, and talks about what course to take were in their infancy, sources said. Puerto Rico could argue that the federal government has treated it unfairly compared to other communities, such as those in Texas and Florida, which got Congress-passed aid much more quickly.
The administration also missed a legal deadline in September to get fresh aid moving. Congress had required HUD to issue funding notices for 18 states and territories wracked by disasters. The agency issued all the notices except for Puerto Rico’s.
“We have three and half million Americans pleading for this government, for their U.S. government to respond to their needs,” Rep. Katherine Clark, D-Mass., the conference vice chair, said Tuesday. “We are also going to explore our legal options to force this administration to abide by the law, abide what Congress has appropriated, and to do right by the Americans who live in Puerto Rico.”
Velazquez has already spearheaded a letter to Housing Secretary Ben Carson with 40 other Democrats asking why some $8.3 billion passed in February last year remained in the hands of the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
A HUD official told the Daily News last week that the agency believes Puerto Rico’s government has a history of corruption, and that the agency “must ensure that any HUD assistance provided helps those on the island who need it the most: the people of Puerto Rico.”
Velazquez said Democrats were also seeking answers from Carson as to whether Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s acting chief of staff and head of the Office of Management and Budget, was behind the delay in aid.
Mulvaney “said publicly from the White House podium that he didn’t want to give aid to Puerto Rico,” Velazquez told the Daily News. “We need answers from Secretary Carson on why this funding is delayed and if the White House or the president’s chief of staff ordered a delay.”
In a statement to the Daily News, the OMB said it was working to ensure funds don’t fall into the hands of Puerto Rico’s “corrupt” politicians.
“This administration has been working to support recovery efforts in Puerto Rico and will continue to do so. Over $90 billion has been forecast to be spent on Puerto Rico recovery relief, which is unprecedented. Under President Trump, Puerto Rico has received more recovery funds than at any time in U.S. history. While we continue to ensure Puerto Rico has what they need, we must also make sure the proper guidelines are in place to make certain the people of Puerto Rico directly benefit, not politicians with their history of corruption.”
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