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02:09 - Source: CNN

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DHS denied reporters that they have denied a waiver request

However, they acknowledged they received a request from members of Congress

Washington CNN  — 

The Department of Homeland Security denied Wednesday that it had rejected a request to loosen shipping rules regarding Puerto Rico, which island officials say would be a significant help in recovery efforts from Hurricane Maria.

Hill Democrats say lifting an arcane and protectionist federal law known as the Jones Act – which is designed to protect the financial interests of US shipbuilders by limiting shipping by foreign vessels – would help expedite supplies to the ravaged island. They say they reached out to the agency earlier this week but didn’t hear back.

The act was quickly lifted to help Texas and Florida in the wake of hurricanes Harvey and Irma. DHS said it was able to lift the restrictions quickly because the Department of Defense requested a waiver for those states and the department hasn’t yet done so for Puerto Rico.

DHS spokesman David Lapan said US Customs and Border Protection has no pending official waiver request regarding Puerto Rico and that the story is “just not true.”

“We do not lack US-flagged vessel capacity to move commodities to Puerto Rico,” Lapan said.

Asked to comment, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said such a waiver is not yet needed. A senior administration official said Wednesday the White House does not expect DHS to make a decision on the waiver request by the end of the day, citing the consideration process.

President Donald Trump told reporters later Wednesday that “we’re thinking” about lifting the law, but added that a “lot of shippers” don’t want it lifted.

“We have a lot of shippers and a lot of people that work in the shipping industry that don’t want the Jones Act lifted. We have a lot of ships out there right now,” he told reporters.

He continued: “Puerto Rico is a very difficult situation. That place was just destroyed … that place was flattened. That is a really tough situation. I feel so badly for the people.”

In a conference call with reporters Wednesday morning, senior DHS officials acknowledged the congressional request after having denied previously that a request was made.

“We have received a request from members of Congress – which is not a normal way that waiver requests come in – but we’re going to evaluate the issues they’ve raised,” a senior DHS official said. “Our general counsel is evaluating whether members of Congress have standing to request such a waiver.”

DHS has not responded to the members of Congress who made the request, the senior officials said on the call, with one adding that the agency would “evaluate the merits of the arguments they’ve raised.”

Democrats say they contacted acting DHS chief Elaine Duke via both email and traditional mail on Monday, according to a spokesperson for Rep. Nydia Velázquez, D-New York, who spearheaded the outreach. Duke acknowledged on Wednesday that she received the request.

A spokesperson for Velázquez told CNN earlier Wednesday that DHS had not acknowledged the request. On the call, DHS officials said the request was being acted on.

“It smacks of bureaucratic ineptitude that they would be dithering with issues of standing while a humanitarian crisis is unfolding,” a spokesperson for Velázquez told CNN about the DHS response.

“This is a humanitarian crisis, and Puerto Rico needs all the help it can get,” the congresswoman said. “This includes ensuring any and all maritime assets can access the island to deliver aid, regardless of their Jones Act status. Furthermore, given the devastation from Maria, it is clear that Puerto Rico’s already-struggling economy will face a difficult road ahead. My letter requested a one-year exemption to the Jones Act to help stimulate economic activity and alleviate hardship on the Island by reducing the cost of basic goods.”

The nearly century-old Jones Act is a law that requires that all goods shipped between ports of the United States be carried by vessels built, owned and operated by Americans. As a result, it limits shipping between coasts.

But in the wake of the devastation in Puerto Rico caused by Hurricane Maria, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz – along with other US politicians, including Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona – have urged the suspension of the Jones Act in order to speed up supply deliveries.

CNN’s Gregory Wallace, Rene Marsh, Joe Johns and Kevin Liptak contributed to this report.