Rick Scott campaigned on standing up for Puerto Rico. But with President Donald Trump warning senators not to provide more aid to the island, the Florida Republican is caught between his party and his promises.
And Democrats are eager to exploit that tension — blasting Scott for sticking with the president on a critical disaster relief bill and throwing the freshman senator into the middle of a broader fight over stalled assistance for millions of Americans devastated by wildfires, flooding and hurricanes.
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Scott, meanwhile, is lashing out at his Democratic critics, feuding in particular with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) in increasingly personal terms.
“This is a great example of why people hate politics. Not only did @SenSchumer block a bipartisan bill, now he’s lying about it,” Scott tweeted Sunday evening. “Our bill doesn’t strip funding for P.R. It includes $600 mil in nutrition assistance funding for P.R. that I fought to get in the bill.”
Schumer responded Monday: “We all know @realDonaldTrump took all aid for Puerto Rico but nutrition assistance out of the bill. The bill has none of the long-term recovery & resilience aid PR has asked for repeatedly. Stop the bull. Stand up to the President.”
A couple hours later, Scott tweeted back, “The truth is, you’re more than happy to give Puerto Rico nothing if it helps prolong a political fight with Trump. That’s shameful.”
I’m working with Rs, Ds and the President to get a deal done. But it shouldn’t have taken this long. FL’s been waiting 6 months.
The truth is, you’re more than happy to give Puerto Rico nothing if it helps prolong a political fight with Trump. That’s shameful. https://t.co/MHEYlrSdtj
— Rick Scott (@SenRickScott) April 15, 2019
The disaster aid bill serves as a first crucial test for the former Florida governor, who campaigned in 2018 as an advocate for Puerto Rico and someone willing to split with Trump.
During his successful campaign against incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), Scott said he disagreed with Trump’s baseless suggestion that Democrats inflated the number of people who died from Hurricane Maria. Scott cited his comments, made on Twitter, in a Spanish-language commercial. According to sources who track media buying, Scott spent $4.7 million on Spanish-language TV and radio during his campaign.
After his narrow victory, Scott delivered a floor speech in which he said he intends to be a “voice for the people of Puerto Rico” in the Senate and offered an amendment to provide disaster aid to Puerto Rico as part of legislation to end the government shutdown.
The amendment went nowhere during the shutdown, and Democrats scoff at his claim to be a champion for the struggling territory.
“If you wanna be an advocate you need to be an advocate, which means you should be advocating for Puerto Rico which is not what he’s doing,” said Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.).
When asked about his response to Democratic criticism, Scott went after Schumer in a brief interview last week.
“Who voted for Shelby’s disaster bill, who voted against it? It was pretty simple,” Scott said, referring to a Republican-backed proposal from Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.).
Scott added that he had taken other steps to help struggling families. “Did Schumer open up a relief center in New York? No, he forgot to do that. Did he waive any regulations that I know of so that kids can get into schools? … No, they didn’t do any of that stuff.”
A spokesperson for Schumer responded: “Senator Scott’s energy would be better spent working with the Governor of Puerto Rico to urge Leader [Mitch] McConnell to stop blocking proposals that provide much-needed aid to Puerto Rico, instead of criticizing the people who are trying to actually help.”
Competing measures to provide disaster relief failed to advance earlier this month.
One plan, from Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) and Shelby, would have provided $600 million in nutrition assistance to Puerto Rico, as well as money to the Midwest, which has been hit by recent floods.
A Democratic alternative proposed by Senate Appropriations Ranking Member Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Schumer would have provided similar nutrition assistance to Puerto Rico while freeing up grant funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development that has already been allocated to the island; it also would have increased eligibility for disaster relief in Midwestern states and Southern states affected by floods.
The GOP proposal failed to get the 60 votes need to advance, as did a House Democratic bill; Senate Democrats sought to bring their plan to the floor by unanimous consent but were blocked by Republicans.
Democrats blame Trump, who recently complained behind closed doors to Republican senators that Puerto Rico was getting too much disaster aid and that the island was misusing federal hurricane relief.
McConnell described Shelby’s bill as “the only game in town” on the Senate floor earlier this month, and Republicans say that Trump is all but guaranteed to veto legislation that includes more money for Puerto Rico.
“He’s pretty upset about how much money Puerto Rico’s gotten relative to other places where there’s been serious disasters,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas).
Scott’s tried to work with the White House directly on aid to Puerto Rico. He was among a group of Republican senators who met with Trump at the White House last week to discuss a deal. But so far no progress has been announced. A spokesperson for Shelby, who also attended the meeting, said in a statement: “The Chairman had a productive meeting at the White House, and staff will continue to work to find a bipartisan path forward on the disaster supplemental.”
In addition to meeting with the White House and proposing the disaster aid amendment during the shutdown, Scott traveled to Puerto Rico in February and met with Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló later that month. Rosselló opposes the Republicans’ disaster aid bill and has called for more money from Congress.
Scott’s discussions with the White House come amid low approval ratings for Trump among Puerto Ricans in Florida, according to a recent survey. The survey found that only 21 percent of Puerto Rican in Florida voters had a positive opinion of Trump, while 69 percent had an unfavorable opinion. Scott, by contrast, had a 48 percent favorability rating and a 35 percent unfavorability rating.
It’s not unheard of for a freshman senator to attack another party’s leader. But Scott also clearly has no problem with trying to seize the spotlight. The former governor occasionally holds solo news conferences on a range of issues, from Washington dysfunction to Venezuelan politics.
Scott’s approach to disaster aid has also been notably different from that of Sen. Marco Rubio, his fellow Florida Republican. Rubio defended his colleague saying Scott’s “in favor of doing as much as we possibly can.”
But Rubio was more open about his disagreement with the White House.
“The reality that we have here is the White House has said that they would veto a bill that has more funding than the food stamp program,” Rubio said. “I don’t agree with the White House on it, but it endangers the bill. So our job is to try to get as much as we can now.”
Burgess Everett contributed to this report.