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Senate passes disaster aid bill, ending months of gridlock over Puerto Rico funds

Washington — Ending months of gridlock over additional hurricane relief funds for Puerto Rico, the Senate voted overwhelmingly to pass a multi-billion-dollar aid package that includes assistance to the storm-battered island and mainland states struck by floods, storms and fire. 

By a vote of 85 to 8, senators agreed Thursday to send the $19-billion legislation to the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives, which is also expected to pass it. Previously, Republican senators had been wary of signing off on additional aid for hurricane-battered Puerto Rico, which President Trump has strongly opposed. 

If passed by the House and signed by the president, the disaster package would deliver aid to help Puerto Ricans facing food assistance 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.  

"Even though it may be five months late, today is a good day for the United States Congress, for the American people, and for the nation," Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, wrote in a statement. "I have said from the beginning that any disaster supplemental that passes this chamber cannot pick and choose which American citizens to help in their time of need.

A senior Democratic aide told CBS News that lawmakers in the party secured language in the legislation to bar funding from being appropriated to other projects, a move aimed at preventing the administration from diverting funds to build the president's long-promised wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.   

Puerto Rico's Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, who has repeatedly clashed with Mr. Trump over federal assistance to the U.S. territory, praised the package's passage and urged lawmakers in the House to take "swift action" and approve the legislation. 

"Even though Puerto Rico was repeatedly told that we would not receive one more dollar in disaster relief, this legislation shows that many in Washington, D.C. understand that our recovery is not complete," Rosselló wrote in a statement. 

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer blamed the president for slowing down the bill's passage, which he said proved that Republicans had to break with the White House to successfully work with Democrats on bipartisan legislative efforts. 

"The president — just as he was yesterday — has been an obstructionist force," the New York Democrat said, referring to a brief White House meeting he had with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi Wednesday which came to an abrupt when Mr. Trump stormed out of the room incensed that the speaker accused him of staging a "cover-up."

Such measures are invariably bipartisan, but this round has been bogged down by weeks of fighting. Democrats ultimately bested Mr. Trump and won more aid for Puerto Rico, which was slammed by back-to-back hurricanes in 2017.

Rebecca Kaplan contributed to this report. 

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