A couple walks by a damaged tree in the Hurricane Maria affected area of Old San Juan
By Amanda Becker
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A new package of U.S. disaster assistance sailed through the House of Representatives on Thursday, despite President Donald Trump expressing impatience with having to devote federal resources for hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico's recovery effort.
The Republican-controlled House voted 353-69 to approve $36.5 billion in emergency relief for Puerto Rico and other areas hit by recent disasters. Senate approval is expected in coming weeks.
Trump and his aides on Thursday suggested that there would be a limit to how much help Puerto Rico could expect from Washington to solve some of its longer-term problems, although Trump is expected to sign the latest emergency package.
Puerto Rico has been grappling with a bankruptcy crisis and owes $72 billion to creditors. Devastation from Hurricanes Irma and Maria was exacerbated by dilapidated infrastructure, including a power grid that was largely destroyed by the storms.
In a morning tweet, Trump warned that the United States "cannot keep FEMA, the Military & the First Responders, who have been amazing (under the most difficult circumstances) in P.R. forever!"
FEMA is the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which oversees disaster response in the United States.
Presidential aides later on Thursday provided assurances that the federal government will not abandon Puerto Rico, a Caribbean territory of the United States with a population of around 3.4 million.
All 69 votes against the aid package came from Trump's fellow Republicans. Congress is expected to consider additional aid in the coming weeks but the debate over the level of help could grow more contentious.
House Speaker Paul Ryan is scheduled to lead a bipartisan congressional delegation to visit Puerto Rico on Friday.
Some conservatives were displaying early signs of fatigue over Washington's expenditures.
Republican Representative Tom Cole, a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee, said in an interview with Reuters on Wednesday that some lawmakers have urged him to find ways to offset the costs of disaster relief.
Besides this latest aid package, Congress last month approved $15.25 billion to help with earlier storm damages, including from Hurricane Harvey that hit hard in Texas, and wildfires.
"There is some concern about can we couple some of this (disaster aid) with reform measures," Cole said. That could include savings to a national flood insurance program or other steps, he added.
Besides helping Puerto Rico recover from Hurricane Maria, the House-passed bill would also provide funds for the storm-struck areas of Florida, Texas and the U.S. Virgin Islands, and fire-ravaged California.
Cole said the price tag could rise as relief efforts transition from emergency response to more costly rebuilding.
Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, which has a sizeable Puerto Rican community, told Reuters he had urged Trump to create a high-level task force to provide advice for rebuilding Puerto Rico, and that the president was receptive to the idea.
Much of Puerto Rico remains without electricity or running water three weeks after Hurricane Maria made landfall.
"They're basically three weeks now living in the 19th century," Rubio said.
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly told reporters the Trump administration would "stand with those American citizens in Puerto Rico until the job is done."
But Trump's top legislative aide warned against expecting Washington's help for long-term infrastructure problems.
"The president is committed to helping to make sure that we do what is necessary to help to rebuild the island, but there are some elements that pre-existed the hurricane," Marc Short said on CNN.
The House bill includes $18.7 billion for FEMA's disaster relief fund. Of that, $4.9 billion is earmarked for loans to local governments to ensure Puerto Rico can keep government programs operating beyond Oct. 31, when funds would otherwise run out.
Other funds include $576.5 million for the federal government's wildfire control efforts.
Some $16 billion would go toward the National Flood Insurance Program to help it cover claims after reaching its borrowing limit.
Democratic Representative Nydia Velazquez of New York, which has a large Puerto Rican community, chastised Trump for his Twitter comments.
"The president of the United States is tweeting out threats to withdraw assistance, that is an outrage, that is an insult," Velazquez said.
(Reporting by Amanda Becker, Additional reporting by Richard Cowan, Roberta Rampton, Susan Heavey and David Morgan; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Rosalba O'Brien)