On Puerto Rico Bill, a Victory for the Middle
Despite complaints from the Right and Left, House GOP leaders look poised to push through a rare bipartisan deal.
Facing a debt crisis in Puerto Rico and opposition from the Left and the Right to a compromise bill, House leaders look poised to pass it anyway—proving that even in a deeply polarized election year, the center can hold.
The bill, which seeks to create a federal oversight board to help the island territory restructure its debt, is being panned by progressive presidential candidate Bernie Sanders for being undemocratic. The same critique is being employed by members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, and senators from both parties have their own concerns.
Yet facing a situation that could have sunk other legislation, Speaker Paul Ryan was able to negotiable a bill with the White House and congressional Democrats for which, as he put it in a recent statement, “Republicans and Democrats came together to fulfill Congress’s constitutional and fiscal responsibility to address the crisis.”
The victory for Ryan is more pronounced because only a few weeks ago the bill seemed dead in its tracks. Leaders postponed a markup and pulled back to give both sides more time to negotiate. The time also gave leaders an opportunity to counter an effective campaign by opponents of the bill to paint it as a bailout.
“This is a situation where the process, and slowing the process down a little bit, has given us a good result,” said Rep. Ann Wagner, a senior deputy GOP whip. “It ran pretty fast out the gate, and then we had to slow it down and do the proper—what I would call education process of members, of the public.”
Still, Rep. Raul Grijalva, the ranking member on the Natural Resources Committee and one of the leading Democrats in the negotiations, said the coming together was less of a grand bargain and more a result of the severity of Puerto Rico’s crisis.
“I wouldn’t call it a ‘Kumbaya’ moment. The practical reality drove this; the urgency drove this,” Grijalva said. “Our role was to keep the worst from happening, which was to do nothing or have a piece of legislation that wouldn’t pass the Senate or that the president wouldn’t sign.”
Democrats, he said, were motivated to get any bill off the ground, but sought to keep certain GOP desires out of the bill. Language transferring 3,100 acres of federal land to Puerto Rico was removed amid Democratic concerns that the land would be used for private development, and some concessions were made regarding control of the oversight board.
And to Ryan’s credit, said Republican Rep. Tom Cole, he did not allow the details or peripheral objections become the focal point of the legislation.
“People forget he’s been pretty effective at brokering deals that can bring along the majority of his conference,” Cole said. “He starts with, ‘What are the basic issues at risk here?’ and then, ‘What are the things around the edges that are less central to the argument but could move votes or impact opinion?’”
Grijalva, one of the first members to endorse Sanders’s presidential campaign, said his staff had spoken with Sanders’s aides about the senator’s concerns and that he shares some of them. Grijalva said he wasn’t worried about other progressives siding with Sanders and voting against the bill, though he added that “if we would have written it, it would be a different bill.
“Everybody’s a free agent and actor. As ranking member, I think my role is one of trying to get something done,” he said.
Rep. Keith Ellison, Grijalva’s cochair on the Congressional Progressive Caucus, acknowledged being in something of a tough spot, having to choose between voting against a bill that his colleague helped write, or for a bill his preferred presidential candidate has panned. He noted that Puerto Rican residents of his Minnesota district have problems with the legislation as well.
“They’re saying this board should have far more specific Puerto Rican representation on it, and they don’t like the idea of compromises on pensions, minimum wage—those kinds of things,” Ellison said. “But here’s the thing: Is there a better deal to be had? … We don’t run the place, and you’ve got to deal with the fact that they have the gavels.”
The bill could face a tougher battle in the Senate, where Republican leaders opted to wait for House action. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters Tuesday that leaders were “informed and we’re anxious to take up whatever [the House] can pass,” but several Democrats said the deal left them wanting more.
Democratic Whip Dick Durbin said “there were no expressions of support in our caucus lunch about the bill as has been described to us,” especially over the bill’s minimum-wage language and the lack of changes to reimbursement for Puerto Rico on Medicare and Medicaid.
Sen. Robert Menendez, who led Senate Democrats on a Puerto Rico bill, said he was concerned that the House bill gave too much power to the oversight board to stop debt restructuring, and would “create conditions for restructuring that are problematic.” The board, he said, “is going to have extraordinary powers. … That is not only neocolonial, but beyond that, could make some real consequential actions as it relates to Puerto Rican society.”
Some Democrats said their opposition was similar to, but not related to, Sanders’s opposition. Menendez, for example, applauded the candidate’s stance, but also said the Sanders idea to have the Federal Reserve issue new loans to Puerto Rico could result in the U.S. government paying back the very hedge funds that hold the island’s debt. “I don’t know that he’s thought that through,” Menendez said.
By: Daniel Newhauser and Jason Plautz
Source: National Journal
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