By: Camilo Montoya-Galvez | CBS News
April 17, 2019
Democratic members of Florida's congressional delegation are escalating their criticism of the state's freshman Sen. Rick Scott, accusing him of stonewalling negotiations to pass a multi-billion-dollar disaster aid package at the behest of President Trump, who opposes additional recovery funds for storm-battered Puerto Rico.
"It is amazing to me that Sen. Scott is choosing at this time, along with Leader McConnell, to stand with President Trump and choose Puerto Rico as a grudge match to hold back disaster relief for our own state," Rep. Darren Soto told reporters on Wednesday.
Soto joined fellow Florida Reps. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell and Kathy Castor during a press call to denounce the Senate's failure to broker an agreement and allocate aid for disaster-hit areas across the country. They specifically targeted Scott, claiming he is backtracking on one of his signature campaign promises: helping Puerto Rico recover from a pair of storms in 2017.
During his Senate campaign in Florida, home to one the largest Puerto Rican communities in the mainland, Scott made his support for recovery efforts on the island a central issue and touted endorsements from several Puerto Rican officials.
"Sen. Scott said that he wants to be the champion of Puerto Rico in the Senate," Mucarsel-Powell said. "But of course, instead of being a champion, he's a champion for President Trump."
After weeks of bitter finger-pointing and tense negotiations, Republican and Democratic lawmakers failed to reach an agreement on disaster aid before heading to a two-week recess. The latest version of the assistance package included funds to help Puerto Ricans facing food aid cuts, communities in Midwestern states like Iowa and Missouri recovering from devastating floods and farmers in the South still struggling after Hurricane Michael ravaged their harvests last year.
Any deal to approve a disaster aid package will have to wait until Congress reconvenes later this month.
Democrats believe the failure to reach a compromise on disaster relief, one of the few issues in Congress which usually garners bipartisan supports, is rooted in the president's firm opposition to additional recovery funds for Puerto Rico. They say their Republican colleagues have not included enough funding to help Puerto Rico rebuild its electrical grid and infrastructure in their proposals.
Republicans, meanwhile, have blamed Democrats for introducing bills that the president will veto. The White House only supports $600 million in funding for Puerto Rico's nutritional program, which has been facing significant cuts since the last hurricane-related funding approved by Congress ran out in late February. Citing a misleading claim that Puerto Rico has already received $91 billion in federal aid since Hurricanes María and Irma battered the island in 2017, Mr. Trump has repeatedly asked Republican senators to oppose any additional disaster assistance to the island.
Mucarsel-Powell believes Scott and Mr. Trump are both treating Puerto Rico as a "bargaining chip."
"We need to remember: Puerto Ricans are Americans. They need our help. They've gone through enough," she said. "And this is no time to use them as a political bargaining chip for the president or for Sen. Scott."
In a statement to CBS News Wednesday, Scott's communications director, Chris Hartline, condemned the "political hackery" of "the most liberal politicians" in Florida.
"Two weeks ago, Florida Dems were urging Senate Dems to support the bill Rick Scott co-sponsored that provides important disaster relief funding for Florida and Puerto Rico," Hartline added. "But apparently they got new marching orders from Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi and changed their tune. Rick Scott's actually working on getting a deal done to get this bill across the finish line."