WASHINGTON — Lawmakers are close, really close, to dropping legislation that would form an oversight board to help Puerto Rico restructure $70 billion in debt that it cannot pay.
The commonwealth defaulted May 1 on a roughly $400 million debt payment and if Congress doesn’t act soon, the island will default again on a much larger sum of $2 billion.
Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, told reporters on Friday that the bill would be released today but left some room for another delay. The bill was initially scheduled to be unveiled Wednesday, but negotiators weren’t ready.
“If it doesn’t drop today I will be the most surprised person in the world,” Bishop said. Asked what the ultimate holdup was given his apparent readiness to introduce the text, he said both Democrats and Republicans continue to be hung up on “words.”
“I got too many people who are wordsmiths around this place,” he said. “And the frustration I have is the basics, the underlying proposition of the bill is not changing anything, but we have people piddling around the edges on literally whether the word ‘adequate’ should or should not be included in a sentence.”
Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), Bishop’s ranking member on the committee, said Democrats sent some “changes and removals” they’d like to see in the legislation last night. Their concerns remain the same and pertain to raising the minimum wage on the island, pension protection, how much power the oversight board will have and a few other items.
“We’re still there,” Grijalva said. “If [Bishop and House Speaker Paul Ryan] are true to their word they’ve got to make some movement on those issues.”
Grijalva added that Puerto Rico’s current state of affairs is dire.
“We continue to fiddle while it burns,” he said.
In a recent trip to the commonwealth, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew put a spotlight on the human impact of the debt crisis, visiting an elementary school with no money for air conditioning or basic upkeep and a hospital complex that is central to the region’s healthcare system. If it collapses further, doctors told Lew, “all hell will break loose.”
At a Christian Science Monitor breakfast on Friday, Lew again addressed the problem.
“We need to go from making progress to crossing the finish line,” he said. “We have to make sure this in the public interest not just in private interest. Restructuring is not some radical idea; restructuring used to be considered a conservative idea; it is a way to avoid bailout.”
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