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Despite some issues, Democrats get behind Puerto Rico bill

The Obama administration is calling a Republican-sponsored bill dealing with the Puerto Rico debt crisis a fair but tough bipartisan compromise.
The Puerto Rican flag flies near the Capitol building as the island's residents deal with the government's $72 billion debt on July 1, 2015 in San Juan, Puerto Rico. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty)
The Puerto Rican flag flies near the Capitol building as the island's residents deal with the government's $72 billion debt on July 1, 2015 in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

The Obama administration is calling a Republican-sponsored bill dealing with the Puerto Rico debt crisis a fair but tough bipartisan compromise, but cautioned efforts by "financial interests" to undermine the bill.

The bill was introduced a little before midnight Thursday, replacing an earlier version introduced in March and quickly revoked because of heavy criticism from various interests and opposition from the administration.

The latest version finally was unveiled after the administration and Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan and Treasury Secretary Antonio Weiss came to an agreement on the bill, details of which they had been negotiating for months.

"We are encouraged that Democrats and Republicans did work together to produce this piece of legislation. Bipartisanship is hard to come by in the United States Congress for a few years now," said Josh Earnest, White House press secretary.

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said the bill's provisions allow Puerto Rico to restructure all of its liabilities, provide no bailouts for any creditors and enable "an orderly resolution to Puerto Rico's debt crisis."

But he also expressed disappointment that the bill does not include administration proposals to promote economic growth and provide a long-term Medicaid solution.

"Congress must stand firm and resist calls from financial interests to undermine this effort every step of the way ....," Lew said.

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi joined Ryan in praising the compromise and said the restructuring process it proposes could work.

However, Puerto Rico's Gov. Alejandro García Padilla, who last December told a congressional committee he was issuing a distress because the U.S. territory had no cash left, said he found unacceptable the "attacks on our self-government" from an oversight board the bill creates. The board has significant power over the government's spending, budgeting, debt payment and other decisions.

"I urge Congress to approve the restructuring authorities that we desperately need, not without first modifying the provisions that attack out self-government, which I find unacceptable," García Padilla said.

The bill was introduced by Rep. Sean Duffy, R-Wis., Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, who is the chairman of the Committee on Natural Resources and Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis.

"Years of disastrous policies have completely wrecked Puerto Rico's economy. As a result, the island and its millions of American citizens face a humanitarian crisis," Duffy said in a statement.

Bishop, whose committee will hold a hearing on the bill and vote on whether to advance it to the full House, said the bill makes technical refinements and incorporates negotiated changes to the earlier version that was quickly withdrawn and returned to negotiations because of heavy criticism.

"Any future changes will be done in public meetings," said Bishop, in whose committee the bill will be discussed publicly, amended if there is agreement for the changes and in which a vote will be taken on whether to advance it to the full House.

Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona, the ranking Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, expressed some dislikes about the bill's creation of a fiscal oversight board that will have significant authority to resolve Puerto Rico's money and debt problems. He returned last week from a three-day trip to Puerto Rico for briefings on the fiscal crisis and its effect on the island's residents.

"This legislation is a compromise, so of course there are aspects that cause me concern," Grijalva said. "But I am even more concerned about the humanitarian crisis unfolding on the island. The Treasury Department tells us that this combination of oversight and debt restructuring will work, and that it is a significant achievement.

Grijalva, who is aggressive on environmental conservation, had loudly criticized plans that were included in the earlier version of the bill to transfer the Vieques National Wildlife Refuge to the Puerto Rico government, fearing it could be used for possible development to raise badly needed cash.

That provision was removed from the bill, earning praise for Grijalva's effort from Latino groups.

The bill, however, includes a provision to allow the governor to reduce the minimum wage for certain workers over five years for people younger than 20 years old, which Earnest criticized in the White House briefing Thursday, despite administration support for much of the bill.

"I think it would be pretty hard for anyone to explain how a 19-year-old Puerto Rican who is making minimum wage is somehow responsible for this situation or should be punished as result of this situation or this situation would be improved if 19-year-olds who are making minimum wage would be making less," Earnest said.

"No this is not a provision that we support. Supporters of this provision have a hard time justifying it. 'In order to see bipartisan action in Congress, we are prepared to encourage Congress to pass a piece of legislation even if its less than perfect," he said.

Puerto Rico has been suffering a severe fiscal crisis that has forced hundreds of thousand of its residents, who are American citizens, to move to the U.S. mainland to seek work. The island has a $72 billion debt and has defaulted on bond payments. It faces another multimillion payment in July.

Pedro Pierluisi, Puerto Rico's resident commissioner in Congress, said although the bill is not perfect and does not meet all of his criteria for his support, he may be able to support it.

"Like any product of bipartisan compromise, it contains provisions I oppose or view as unnecessary and it is my hope these provisions can be modified or removed as the legislative process moves forward," he said in a statement.

"However the heart of the bill - the debt restructuring section and the oversight board section - comes far closer to meeting the stringent criteria I established in order for the legislation to earn my support," he said.

He warned that the collapse of the bill could mean the collapse of Puerto Rico's government and said: "History will judge us harshly if we do not act swiftly and wisely."

Click here to view the legislative text.

Click here to view a legislative summary.

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