House Dems: Time to start Puerto Rico talks

House Democrats are calling for formal talks to craft legislation to help Puerto Rico out of its debt crisis.

One day before the House holds its third hearing on the island’s economic and fiscal woes, Democratic leaders are pushing Republicans to sit down with them and craft a bill.

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“Following tomorrow’s hearing we should immediately start discussions on drafting bipartisan legislation that can be reported to the floor without further delay,” said Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee. “The clock is ticking; March 31st will be here before we know it.”

Speaker Paul RyanPaul RyanApple's Tim Cook to hold fundraiser for Clinton Reid: Congress should return 'immediately' to fight Zika Classified briefings to begin for Clinton, Trump MORE (R-Wis.) elevated the Puerto Rico issue to a top congressional priority at the end of 2015, publicly vowing to produce a bill providing the U.S. territory with some form of relief by the end of March.

So far, lawmakers have held several hearings on the matter and say they are working on legislation, but nothing has been produced as of yet. Now, Democrats are getting impatient.

House Democrats, from Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on down, are pushing Republicans to draft legislation with them, and are making clear that granting Puerto Rico the power to declare bankruptcy on some of its $72 billion in debt has to be part of any legislation.

“Only Congress can empower Puerto Rico with the meaningful tools to restructure its public debt and restore the economic stability necessary to create jobs and a brighter economic future,” said Pelosi. “I urge my Republican colleagues to act expeditiously in enacting a comprehensive and bipartisan solution that brings urgent relief to the people of Puerto Rico.”

On Thursday, the House Natural Resources Committee will hear from the administration on the Puerto Rico situation. Antonio Weiss, a top Treasury Department adviser, will be on hand to testify.

Puerto Rico’s plight has loomed large on Congress’s radar for several months, ever since the island’s governor publicly announced that it would not be able to pay back all its debt. A slowing economy has pushed millions of Puerto Ricans to leave the island for the mainland United States, driving down island revenues and exacerbating its economic struggles.

To make matters worse, the tax treatment of Puerto Rican debt has made its offerings incredibly popular with investment firms, which helped push the island to issue debt far in excess of any other state in the country.

Policymakers have considered a range of proposals to address the island’s problems, including some sort of federally-run board to oversee its finances.

Senate Republicans unveiled a bill in 2015 that would have granted up to $3 billion in federal relief to the island in exchange for heightened oversight. But that legislation has not advanced since its introduction.