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Senate growing impatient for Puerto Rico bill

Senate growing impatient for Puerto Rico bill
© Cameron Lancaster

Senators are growing impatient with the House’s prolonged effort to pass legislation on Puerto Rico’s debt crisis.

House Republicans are hoping to regain momentum for their Puerto Rico bill Wednesday, when Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob BishopRobert (Rob) William BishopGOP's Westerman looks to take on Democrats on climate change House Republicans who didn't sign onto the Texas lawsuit OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Westerman tapped as top Republican on House Natural Resources Committee | McMorris Rodgers wins race for top GOP spot on Energy and Commerce | EPA joins conservative social network Parler MORE (R-Utah) will unveil a reworked version of the measure.

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But while the Senate is willing to let the House take the lead, lawmakers in the upper chamber made clear Tuesday they are not willing to wait forever.

“We should move quickly to help Puerto Rico,” Sen. Charles SchumerChuck SchumerBiden to meet with 6 GOP senators next week The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Emergent BioSolutions - Upbeat jobs data, relaxed COVID-19 restrictions offer rosier US picture How to fast-track climate action? EPA cutting super pollutant HFCs MORE (D-N.Y.) said. “We’ve been waiting for the House, but I would hope the Senate leadership on both sides of the aisle — I know our side would — would act if it looks like the House is tied in a knot.”

Legislation addressing Puerto Rico’s debt woes has been delayed several times in the House. Island officials have been calling on Washington for a fix for nearly a year, and Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Emergent BioSolutions - Facebook upholds Trump ban; GOP leaders back Stefanik to replace Cheney Budowsky: Liz Cheney vs. conservatives in name only Cheney at donor retreat says Trump's actions 'a line that cannot be crossed': report MORE (R-Wis.) vowed action on the matter by March 31 after it was not addressed in a year-end spending bill.

That deadline came and went, and work screeched to a halt in mid-April, when Bishop’s panel had to hastily cancel a markup of a bill. Rank-and-file members balked at the package, unfamiliar with its details and concerned by accusations in TV ads that the measure represented a “bailout” of Puerto Rico.

Leaders had to spend time convincing members that no federal dollars would go to the island as part of the bill. Instead, it would establish an outside fiscal control board and allow the territory to rework its $70 billion in unpayable debt.

The attention on Puerto Rico was heightened last week, when the island suffered its largest default yet on roughly $422 million in debt payments. And now lawmakers are saying it is possible, but not a sure thing, they will have a bill moving by July 1, when the island faces a whopping $2 billion payment it says it cannot make.

With the clock ticking, senators from both parties say Congress will have to act sooner rather than later.

“I’d like to solve it tomorrow. I’m willing to do it,” said Sen. Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchBottom line The Republicans' deep dive into nativism Press: Forget bipartisanship — it's dead! MORE (R-Utah), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

Hatch has previously aired concerns about the House approach.

“Obviously the timing of this is an issue,” said Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenBad jobs report amplifies GOP cries to end 0 benefits boost Putting a price on privacy: Ending police data purchases Overnight Health Care: Biden sets goal of at least one shot to 70 percent of adults by July 4 | White House to shift how it distributes unallocated vaccines to states MORE (Ore.), the ranking Democrat on the Finance Committee. “This is urgent business.”

Both Ryan and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) have emphasized that a Puerto Rico bill will have to be bipartisan to make it through Congress and receive President Obama’s signature.

Schumer indicated that if the House can pass such a bill, it could earn quick consideration from the Senate.

“We’re in close consultation with Leader Pelosi, and so our views aren’t much different,” he said. “If it’s going to pass the House, it’ll need her support.”

But Pelosi’s team is not yet ready to sign off on the bill, as Democrats fret about side provisions aimed at winning over conservatives.

“We are not happy with, nor are we supportive of the ancillary issues in this bill as proposed by the Republicans,” said Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). “We don’t think they are even necessary or appropriate to be here, and we will have to deal with them as it comes forward.”

It’s an open question whether the Senate would look to put its stamp on any House measure dealing with Puerto Rico. Hatch said he wanted to make sure the bill puts in place a sufficiently tough oversight board.

“I think we owe it to [Puerto Rico], but they have to understand that it’s not going to be easy on them,” he said. “The supervisory board will have total power to make whatever decisions have to be made.”

While the House prepares a revised bill, the Obama administration is upping the pressure. Treasury Secretary Jack LewJacob (Jack) Joseph LewThe Hill's Morning Report - Biden argues for legislative patience, urgent action amid crisis On The Money: Senate confirms Yellen as first female Treasury secretary | Biden says he's open to tighter income limits for stimulus checks | Administration will look to expedite getting Tubman on bill Sorry Mr. Jackson, Tubman on the is real MORE traveled to Puerto Rico Monday to highlight the economic plight on the island. Rep. Raúl Grijalva (Ariz.), the top Democrat on Bishop’s committee, also was in Puerto Rico with the same goal.

Meanwhile, supporters of action on the debt crisis are hoping that the May 1 default, combined with the specter of a default five times that size come July, are enough to spur action in the House.

Former Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), who is now representing a group of Puerto Rico bondholders and is a columnist for The Hill, said Tuesday he was confident Congress could come together on a bill if the House finds a way forward.

“Puerto Rico’s May 1 default and the specter of more pain on July 1 have re-focused House Republicans,” he said. “If Chairman Bishop and Speaker Ryan quickly usher this bill — which does not cost taxpayers one cent — to the Senate, policy will take priority over politics and [the bill] will pass. I do not believe the Senate will stand idle while the Commonwealth slides into economic cardiac arrest.” 

Mike Lillis contributed.