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Hispanic Caucus Wrestles With Puerto Rico Bill’s Shortcomings

Image: Bob Menendez, Luis Gutierrez

Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., left, accompanied by Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, May 26, 2016, on the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act, which passed the House Committee on Natural Resources on Wednesday, May 25, 2016, and is designed to address its critical debt crisis. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) J. Scott Applewhite / AP

The Obama administration worked Thursday to solidify Democratic backing of the Puerto Rico debt bill, but met some resistance in the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

Antonio Weiss, counselor the Treasury secretary, met with the caucus in its weekly closed-door session that, according to some, was at times contentious.

Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., and Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., are calling on fellow Democrats to use their leverage - Democrats' votes are needed to pass the bill in the House - to get some changes to the legislation. They were at the CHC meeting and peppered him with questions.

In Lin-Manuel Miranda's Beloved Puerto Rico, Family Speaks of Unfolding Crisis 3:34

Although Puerto Rico faces a July deadline for a $2 billion debt payment, much of it to bondholders, Menendez and Gutierrez seemed willing to miss that deadline if necessary to get time to refashion the bill.

"I think it's important to meet your obligations but at the same time is that about somehow not funding essential services in Puerto Rico?" Menendez asked at a Capitol news conference.

Menedez added that while the deadline is important, if the Congress passes a bad bill that does more to harm than help Puerto Rico in the next year, "I don't view it as … July should be the end all and be all."

The House Natural Resources Committee approved the bill with Democratic votes and Democratic support also is being counted on to get the bill through the House. There are a number of Republicans who oppose the bill.

Congress left Thursday for its weeklong Memorial Day recess and the expectation is the bill until about mid-June but possibly in July.

Previous versions were pulled back into negotiations with the administration and support has come from many Democrats reluctantly.

Asked about lawmakers who are supporting the bill as the lesser of two evils - the other evil being continued fiscal chaos in Puerto Rico, Menendez said: "I have seen the lesser of two evils become a dragon at the end of the day and become very evil."

Looming over the entire process is the worsening state of Puerto Rico.

In an interview with CNN, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew painted a dire picture of the situation based on a visit there last week.

"What I saw was not acceptable in the United States of America. I was in a hospital, where the neonatal unit could not order the drugs they needed on an orderly basis to do dialysis to premature babies," Lew said. "They had to do cash on delivery daily to make sure they had what they need to keep these tiny babies alive."

As he departed the CHC meeting with Weiss, Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz, one of the Democrats on the House Natural Resources Committee who supported the bill, expressed concerns about who would be appointed to the powerful oversight board that the bill creates to get Puerto Rico's fiscal house back on track.

The seven-member Financial Control board will have four appointees named by Republicans, though all must be approved by the president.

"They appoint four Republicans. What if it is like the Freedom Caucus on steroids for Puerto Rico?" asked Gutierrez, referring to a caucus of House conservatives who were leaders in pushing out former House Speaker John Boehner. Gutiérrez's parents were born in Puerto Rico.

The Freedom Caucus includes Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, who was born in Puerto Rico. He has backed the bill and has been trying to bring along other conservatives to do so as well.

Rep. Loretta Sanchez, who attended the caucus meeting, said after that some language in the bill is vague or not well defined and leaves room for policies that could hurt the Puerto Rican people.

"There's not a lot of love for that bill," said Sanchez, D-Calif., but she also said not everyone who attended the caucus meeting was skeptical.

"We are united in that the Puerto Rican people have suffered and are suffering and we need to get this turned around," she said, "and very disgusted in that we have been clamoring to get something done and that finally, Speaker Ryan turned to it … but it's been a long time coming."

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