Hispanic lawmakers face painful decision on Puerto Rico

Hispanic lawmakers are sharply divided over what to do about Puerto Rico’s debt crisis.

Puerto Rico’s delegate to Congress and several members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus have begrudgingly endorsed a House bill backed by Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) It’s far from sufficient, they say, but the only viable option to help the island avoid a catastrophic default.

Reps. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) and Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), though, are opposing the bill and seeking changes that could cost Republican support and blow up months of arduous negotiations.

{mosads}Each side insists it’s putting the Puerto Rican people above political ambitions in a fight that dwells on the contentious and, for many, painful issue of the island’s territorial status.

“This is not about winning or losing. This is about taking a principled position for the people of Puerto Rico,” Gutierrez told reporters Thursday. “People didn’t send me here, to the Congress of the United States, to roll over and play dead.”

The Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act — called PROMESA, from the Spanish word for “promise — cleared the House Natural Resources Committee on Wednesday. It establishes a seven-person oversight board that will decide how to restructure Puerto Rico’s more than $70 billion in debt.

The bill is the result of months of deliberations between House leaders, the White House and Treasury Department. Negotiators had to balance Democratic concerns about the control board’s power and Republican concerns about protecting bondholders and Puerto Rico’s long-term fiscal health.

Despite deep reservations, Hispanic lawmakers who back the bill say there is no other option. Puerto Rico’s shrinking economy, crumbling infrastructure and the mass emigration of the island’s residents is too dangerous to go unaddressed, they argue. 

“When measured against a perfect bill, this legislation is inadequate. When measured against the worsening crisis in Puerto Rico, this legislation is necessary,’ said Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) a caucus member and top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee.

Hispanic Caucus Chairwoman Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.) said she expected a majority of the caucus to support it, but said members “have to weigh, does the good in the bill outweigh the bad?”

The bill sailed through the Natural Resources Committee with wide bipartisan support, but the Obama administration is paying close to Hispanic lawmakers ahead of a likely floor vote next month.

Antonio Weiss, a top aide to Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, briefed the caucus on the bill Thursday, and members said they’ve received personal calls from Lew.

“Freshman year members of Congress don’t usually get calls from the Secretary of Treasury,” said first-term Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), who supports the bill. 

Gallego said he still has concerns about the makeup of the control board, a worry shared by many Democrats. Even so, conversations with Lew, other administration figures and Puerto Rican officials convinced him to give the bill “a fighting chance.”

“I just couldn’t let my personal political ideology stand in the way of relief for 3.5 million people when there was no other option,” said Gallego. “And I hate that I got put in this position, but this is sometimes things that happen in politics.”

The oversight board is the most contentious issue for many Hispanic lawmakers, including Gutierrez, who is of Puerto Rican descent, and Menendez. They worry about an unelected body armed with the power to override the Puerto Rican government.

Those concerns reflect decades of tension over Puerto Rico’s territorial status. Menendez called the bill “blatant colonialism,” while Gutierrez insisted that reporters identify the island as “a colony of the United States.”

That tension is openly apparent and personal within the caucus.

Puerto Rico’s non-voting delegate to Congress, Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi (D), supports the bill. He says the oversight board is hard to support “personally and politically,” but a necessary evil to get the bill through Congress.

“Puerto Rico has not ceded or lost anything, because we have never had sovereignty,” said Pierluisi, a gubernatorial candidate who supports statehood for Puerto Rico.

Gutierrez, who supports Puerto Rican independence, implied that Pierluisi supports the bill so he can pave a path to statehood.

“You think you’re going to have statehood declaring Puerto Rico bankrupt?,” said Gutierrez. “That’s always the problem with politicians. They put their own personal ambitions and political ideology ahead of the political framework.”

Pierluisi’s office hit back at Gutierrez’s remarks.

“As Puerto Rico’s only elected representative in Congress, Mr. Pierluisi is focused entirely on what is best for his constituents. He believes that while PROMESA is not perfect, it is indispensable, which is why he is fighting for its passage,” said spokeswoman Dennise Perez.

“He has absolutely no time or desire to respond to petty personal comments made by others.” 

Hispanic lawmakers also have concerns about a provision in the bill allowing Puerto Rico’s governor to lower the minimum wage.

Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah.) blocked an amendment offered by caucus member Rep. Norma Torres (D-Calif.) to remove that language.

“There is no question that Puerto Rico will need to make sacrifices, but it can’t do so on the backs of these hard-working, young American citizens,” said Torres, who voted “present” at the markup. 

Adding to the pressure Hispanic lawmakers feel is the clock, with Puerto Rico facing a massive $2 billion debt payment on July 1. Some are convinced the bill can’t be changed in time.

And both sides appear far apart.

When asked by The Hill for a pitch to convince Pierluisi to oppose the bill, Gutierrez seemed skeptical he could change his mind.

“Maybe you could develop one for me,” he said.

Tags Bob Menendez Jack Lew Luis Gutierrez Paul Ryan Rob Bishop

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