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