Rep. Raul Grijalva: Imperfect Puerto Rico Bill is a Lifeline

Image: Raul Grijalva, Rob Bishop
House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah., left, and the committee's ranking member Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., right, listen to testimony on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, April 13, 2016, during a legislative hearing on a discussion draft of the "Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act." (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)Susan Walsh / AP

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By Suzanne Gamboa

Don Young, a Republican congressman from Alaska, summed up how challenging it has been for members of Congress to wring a potential solution from the messy layers that make up Puerto Rico's debt problem.

"It's been a headache," Young said in the brief meeting of the House Natural Resources Committee that was limited to members making their opening statements. The committee planned to reconvene Wednesday to go over the bill and possibly vote on it.

"Luckily we've taken some Aleve and we'll get out of this mess," Young said.

Like Young, the lawmakers who made opening statements conveyed that they are worn out for the multi-faceted wrangling that's gone on to get a solution several are holding their noses as they support and move forward a bill that creates and empowers a fiscal board to put Puerto Rico's financial house in order so that the island's government can pay its debt and possibly stop the exodus of its residents to the mainland U.S. The bill has bipartisan and administration support.

The lawmakers also made clear they were fed up with criticisms made throughout out their efforts that the bill they are proposing is a bailout for Puerto Rico.

"Some will say that if we pass this bill we are bailing out Puerto Rico for irresponsible policies and violating existing investor contracts — Bull," said Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee and one of the bill's lead sponsors.

"These are disingenuous arguments. To the contrary, we are creating a future for Puerto Rico by protecting existing investors and procuring future investments," Bishop said.

"If we do not pass this bill, Congress will be faced with the prospects of a bailout later, a real taxpayer bailout – something which I cannot support," he said.

On the Democratic side, Rep. Raul Grijalva, the highest ranking Democrat on the committee, said the bill would get his support, despite his misgivings about some of its language. The bill is a lifeline for the U.S. territory that is drowning in debt, he said.

"This is the only bill that will attract enough support from my Republican colleagues on that side of the aisle to pass in Congress, a Congress they control," said Grijalva of Arizona. "Many of the provisions I oppose are the very provisions that'll probably attract Republican support."

He said he wishes a stimulus and relief package was attached to the bill. He added that the bill also makes the oversight board too powerful, undermines minimum wage laws and overtime rules and does not include pension protections, an Earned Income Tax Credit or funding for Medicaid and a response to the Zika virus.

But, Grijalva said, "when measured against a perfect bill, this legislation is inadequate. When measured against the worsening humanitarian crisis in Puerto, this legislation is necessary."

Separately, Rep. Luis Gutiérrez, whose parents were from Puerto Rico, sent a letter to Bishop and Grijalva Tuesday saying he could not support the bill.

"The PROMESA bill, despite its ability to help the island in certain respects, comes with too high a price tag and with policy pills too hard to swallow to support it," Gutiérrez said in the letter.

The bill was hammered out through bipartisan negotiations and included negotiations with the administration, a major achievement for a Congress that has been generally unable to move forward on much for a while.

The Hill newspaper reported that House Speaker Paul Ryan was very involved in negotiations, including helping to rally support from GOP conservatives in the House, including Rep. Raúl Labrador, R-Idaho, who is Puerto Rican.

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