By Amanda Becker and Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON, April 1 (Reuters) - A major disaster relief bill stalled on Monday in the U.S. Congress amid a political debate over aid for Puerto Rico, with President Donald Trump and his fellow Republicans resisting Democrats' insistence the island receive additional assistance.
The Republican-controlled Senate took two procedural votes on Monday that both failed. The first was on a Republican bill offering $13.5 billion in disaster relief for states that included $600 million in nutrition assistance for Puerto Rico.
The second was on a $14.2 billion bill, with additional assistance for the U.S. island territory, passed by the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives in January, before severe flooding hit the U.S. Midwest.
The failure of both bills sends lawmakers back to the negotiating table as the Trump administration's response to Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico in September 2017, receives increased scrutiny, including from more than a dozen Democrats vying to take on the president in the 2020 elections.
Republicans are poised to attack those Democratic candidates for holding up emergency aid to flood-hit states, including Iowa, which is the first state to hold its presidential nominating contest every four years.
Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló, a Democrat, said over the weekend that while the nutrition assistance in the Senate bill would be "vital to the well being of our citizens," it still "falls short" of what is needed on the island of more than 3 million that has struggled to rebuild after the hurricane.
Trump has repeatedly accused Puerto Rico and its leaders, including Rosselló and San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, a vocal Trump critic, of mismanaging recovery funds and said the island should not receive additional assistance.
"Puerto Rico has been taken care of better by Donald Trump than by any living human being," Trump told reporters last week. "They don't know how to spend the money and they're not spending it wisely."
Rosselló has insisted the island is only asking for the same help given to U.S. states and repeatedly sought a meeting with the president, but his efforts have been rebuffed. Rosselló said in a recent CNN interview that Puerto Rico had struggled to obtain billions of dollars in assistance from the Trump administration that was already approved by Congress.
The island is navigating the largest government bankruptcy in U.S. history, with $120 billion of combined bond and pension debt when it declared bankruptcy in May 2017 after more than a decade of recession.
Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy, who has authored an alternative disaster assistance bill, accused the president of picking "winners and losers."
"Instead of standing with our neighbors, our fellow Americans, the president has chosen to hold petty grudges that are way beneath the office of the presidency," Leahy said on the Senate floor.
The topic of Puerto Rico and its recovery from Hurricane Maria surfaced repeatedly at a Monday forum of 2020 Democratic presidential candidates organized by labor unions and other liberal groups.
Although Puerto Rico nationals are U.S. citizens and send a non-voting resident commissioner to the House, they are prohibited from voting in general presidential elections. But they can cast ballots in the nominating contests starting early next year.
Julián Castro, a former San Antonio mayor, told the forum of his decision to kick off his campaign by visiting the island: "The reason I did that was to highlight the total failure of this administration but also to tell the people of the island you're Americans and we're thinking of you too."
Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, who are also vying for the White House, have both visited Puerto Rico as well. Yulín Cruz is a co-chair of Sanders' campaign. (Reporting by Amanda Becker and Richard Cowan; Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton, Susan Cornwell and Steve Holland; Editing by Peter Cooney)
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