Puerto Rico bill delayed in the House again


Work on Puerto Rico legislation in the House has stalled yet again, though leaders in both parties insist they can see the finish line. 

The planned release of a reworked bill to assist the ailing territory was scrapped on Wednesday as the two parties slogged through lingering issues with the legislation.

{mosads}House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) said a bill would likely be coming Thursday, with a markup still on track for the following week. He said his staff and the Treasury Department were still working out details late Tuesday night, forcing the delay. 

“Apparently those talks went far into the night, and they asked for another 24 hours,” he told reporters. 

It’s just the latest rocky development on what has been an uphill climb for the bill. Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) vowed to act on the island’s debt woes at the end of 2015, but the House has yet to move forward on the issue. 

Bishop’s work on the debt measure was hastily delayed in mid-April as well, minutes before the panel was supposed to take it up. 

But despite the latest hold-up, major players in both parties are expressing optimism about getting a bill done.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Democrats were unable to back the bill they saw Tuesday evening, but were committed to crafting a workable alternative. 

“We were disappointed that the bill we saw yesterday wasn’t something we could support.  And so another few days of back and forth, I think, will produce something that we can take to the floor,” she said Wednesday. “It absolutely must happen.”

Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, took a similar tone. 

“We are making progress, but we are not there yet. The situation in Puerto Rico is dire, but a bill that doesn’t solve the problem, or doesn’t pass, won’t help anyone,” he said in a statement.

But there were hints of partisan finger-pointing. White House press secretary Josh Earnest said some Republicans were slowing progress.

“There has been an unhelpful effort on the part of some Republicans to gum up the works here,” he said. 

And there are signs of fatigue from members who have been working the issue for months.

“I want it done. I wanted it moved on,” Bishop said. “At the end of the day, we just have to suck it up and move forward.”

The basic framework of the bill is thought to remain intact and would establish an outside fiscal control board in return for allowing the island to restructure its $70 billion in debt.

But finding the right mixture of policy details to win over wary conservatives while retaining broad Democratic support has proved difficult.

Democrats are pushing back on a handful of side provisions added to the bill to win over conservatives. One of their strongest objections is to an item that would allow Puerto Rico to pay a lower minimum wage to young workers.

Leaders in both parties have been adamant the bill will need to garner broad bipartisan support to pass both chambers and receive President Obama’s signature. Bishop says he believes that goal is still attainable. 

“It will be a majority of Republicans and a majority of Democrats voting for it,” he said. “This rises above a partisan bill.”

Lawmakers are running short on time to act before Puerto Rico’s debt and economic struggles worsen. The island defaulted on $422 million in debt payments on May 1 and faces a $2 billion default on July 1 without legislative intervention.

But the odds of Congress acting before that date are getting longer by the day. Even if lawmakers in the House can agree on a package, the Senate still has to weigh in on the measure. Bishop said that staffers in both chambers have been talking, but little work has been done between members.

“Those have been pretty peripheral and sketchy,” he said. “[The Senate] is going to pick up this bill, and what they do with it is what they will do with it.”

But proponents remain hopeful that if and when a House bill is truly finished, with backing from the Treasury Department, Congress can act quickly to pass it.

“When the bill comes out here, it’s going to be perfect. We’re all going to be amazed by how good it is,” Bishop said, with a grin.

—This story was updated at 4:34 p.m. Mike Lillis and Jordan Fabian contributed. 

Tags Paul Ryan Puerto Rico Rob Bishop
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