Last month, when the House Natural Resources Committee went back to the drawing board on legislation to address Puerto Rico’s debt crisis, Washington seemed to let out a deep sigh of resignation. It was clear that the debate over the bill, and talks to change it, would drag on for weeks.
Any observer of the Puerto Rico debate could be forgiven for making the same assumption after Wednesday’s announcement that the work on a new Puerto Rico bill would extend further.
But unlike the collapse of the previous bill — which led to Republicans and Democrats blaming each other for failure to bring the bill to the House floor — lawmakers are publicly confident that the new bill will be ready before the end of this week.
Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) told reporters Wednesday afternoon that he still plans to hold a markup and committee vote on the bill next Wednesday. The new bill is expected to be formally introduced on Thursday.
Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona, the committee’s ranking Democrat, shared that optimism in a written statement that said he is “hopeful that with a little more work, we can get there.”
What’s holding up the bill, sources said, are last-minute technical talks over a few issues, such as the transfer of federal land on the island of Vieques to the Puerto Rican government, along with clarifying language on creditor priorities.
Coincidentally, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew was scheduled to meet with President Obama Wednesday for one of their frequent huddles in the Oval Office. Lew was in San Juan earlier this week for meetings with Puerto Rican officials.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters Wednesday that the two leaders would discuss Puerto Rico and Lew’s visit. A White House spokeswoman didn’t comment on a separate line of questioning about whether Lew would ask Obama to weigh in on the new legislation that’s emerging in the House.
Earnest sidestepped questions at Wednesday’s briefing about whether the White House viewed the latest delay as a minor delay or as representing larger problems with the legislation.
Aside from the members of the Republican conference who have faced criticism from outside groups about the bill being a “bailout,” Democrats have faced their own share of problems. Labor unions last month began pushing for the bill to protect pensioners and avoid allowing a diminished minimum wage.
There’s no sign at this point that the new bill will get rid of the controversial wage provision, which would give the governor the authority to lower the commonwealth’s minimum wage below its current level.
The pensions issue will likely be affected by language that is supposed to be added to the new bill that clarifies the prioritization of creditors. Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) has also cited the constitutional requirement to protect general obligation payments as something that needs to be protected in the legislation. He indicated that he would like to see language clarifying that pensions aren’t prioritized ahead of those obligations.
Parish Braden, a spokesman for Natural Resources Republicans, said the bill will likely contain language “to incentivize the government to adequately fund pensions.”
“But there is a firewall between that effort and the Constitution in protecting that hierarchy, and that will not change,” he said.