As congressional leaders mull another disaster relief package for Puerto Rico, a group of Democratic senators with potential presidential aspirations are pushing their own plan.
Sens. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kristen Gillibrand and Kamala Harris, all possible Democratic presidential contenders in 2020, are sponsoring a bill that aims to put disaster recovery "in the hands of the people of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands," a contrast to a $44 billion disaster relief request from the Trump administration last week that encompasses Puerto Rico, Texas, Florida and other areas around the country affected by recent hurricanes, floods and wildfires.
A host of Florida lawmakers voiced displeasure with Trump's disaster relief request for varying reasons.
The bill, which is also supported by Trump critic and San Juan mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, focuses on making the territory more resilient to future storms, a potential sticking point for some deficit-conscious Republicans. Rep. Darren Soto, the only Puerto Rican in Congress from Florida, and Reps. Nydia Velazquez and Stacey Plaskett are sponsoring the House version of the bill.
"In the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the world, millions of people in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands are still struggling with basic needs more than two months since the hurricane struck," Sanders said in a statement. "However, we cannot simply rebuild Puerto Rico the way it was. We must go forward to create a strong, sustainable economy and energy system in Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands that corrects for years of unequal treatments of the islands.”
The bill specifically addresses Puerto Rico's ballooning debt, damaged electric grid, Medicare and Medicaid and requires FEMA to use local workers in disaster recovery efforts. The bill also seeks to stop the privatization of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands' electric grid, schools and roads along with debt relief.
"Puerto Rico is struggling with an unsustainable $74.8 billion of debt, much of which is held by Wall Street creditors, with an additional $49 billion in unpaid pension obligations," a press release for the bill said. "A small group of hedge fund billionaires have demanded extreme austerity policies to decimate public services, including firing teachers and closing schools. That is unacceptable. Puerto Rico will require substantial debt relief so they can focus on rebuilding, not paying back Wall Street."
Republicans are likely to oppose the bill but the new effort from Sanders, Warren, Gillibrand and Harris could have political impacts for Democrats as Puerto Ricans are relocating to the U.S. mainland in droves after Hurricane Maria destroyed power and communications throughout the island. The Trump administration's disaster response has been criticized by lawmakers from both parties, and Democrats have cautioned that Maria will become Trump's Hurricane Katrina.
Democrats in Florida and are hopeful that an influx of Puerto Ricans will help them at the ballot box, though Republicans like Sen. Marco Rubio have also voiced concerns with the Trump administration's disaster response.
Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló recently asked for $94 billion in disaster relief, a massive sum that the Trump administration is unlikely to approve. Rosselló, in contrast to Cruz, has refrained from directly criticizing the Trump administration.
"The bill that Senator Sanders has introduced in the United States Congress is a comprehensive plan that provides the blueprint for the transformation of Puerto Rico," Cruz said in a statement. "While dealing with all major areas of immediate concern: energy, health and education it also sets the foundation to make Puerto Rico a more equitable, just and fair society for all."