WASHINGTON -- The effort to fix Puerto Rico's fiscal mess advanced Wednesday as a House committee held together painfully crafted compromise legislation and approved the legislation 29-10.
Although the bill was slightly amended from what both parties and the administration negotiated, the House Natural Resources Committee dispensed with proposed changes seen as bill killing by either side, such as one suggesting Puerto Rico change its constitution and another to rid the bill of language that allows Puerto Ricans to be paid less than minimum wage.
The agreement was a rarely seen exercise in bipartisanship that has come come about as Puerto Rico's debt crisis has worsened. The realization set in that the bill was a better option than a taxpayer-funded bailout that the U.S. might have to consider if Puerto Rico's economy continued on its downward trajectory. Some of the amendments themselves were bipartisan.
Rep. Rob Bishop, the committee's chairman and a Utah Republican, had made that clear Tuesday evening, when opening statements were given. He said that if Congress did not pass the bill it would be faced with the prospect of a "real taxpayer bailout."
Puerto Rico is $72 billion in debt and has defaulted several times on payments. It faces another large payment in July. It has laid off 10 percent of its hospital workforce, closed schools, is struggling to provide its residents basic services and hundreds of thousands of its residents – all American citizens because Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory – have relocated to the U.S. mainland.
With that in mind, members of the committee from both parties advocated for the bill's passage and turned away as they voted against amendments they supported but knew would spell the bill's death if they made it to passage.
"This hurts," said Rep. Bishop more than once when he voted against amendments he supported.
Bishop, himself, eliminated four proposed amendments offered by Democrats, including one attempting to strike language allowing employers to pay workers 25 and younger less than minimum wage and one to implement the administration's new overtime rules on the island.
Although Bishop tried hard to contain lengthy debates on amendments, Puerto Rico's Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi, gave lengthy explanations of the territory's laws, government and situation. Pierluisi represents the island but cannot vote in Congress.
"I'm embarrassed that this is happening," Pierluisi, who is running for governor of Puerto Rico, said in response to an amendment attempting to include more forcecful language on who gets priority as the debt is restructured and payments are made.
"What we are trying to do is put the house in order, to bring stability to the government of Puerto Rico, it is collapsing," said Pierluisi, who is a candidate on the island's pro-statehood New Progressive Party. "It's not even paying tax refunds. Its not paying private contractors and suppliers. It's not making contribution to the public pension system .. We don't want that chaos."
The amendment failed.
The complex bill essentially creates a powerful seven-member fiscal oversight board that will audit Puerto Rico's finances, create a fiscal plan that spells out how payments would be adjusted, subject to approval by a court,
Bishop provided some levity in the hearing, alluding to the difficult task of hammering out a bill with numerous factions competing for security in the legislation.
"I haven't had so much fun since red snapper," he said referring to another topic of legislation. "Let's just do red snapper and Puerto Rico all the time. Such fffff-frivolity."
The House was scheduled to take its Memorial Day recess, likely pushing a vote on the bill until after they return.
See the full hearing here.