Sen. Bob Menendez, a staunch opponent of a bill designed to help Puerto Rico restructure about $70 billion in debt, stood firm against the measure Tuesday, holding the floor “for several hours” and refusing to yield ahead of a Wednesday procedural vote.
The New Jersey Democrat’s stand is the latest move by a faction of Senate Democrats determined to amend the measure, although all signs point to failure on that front. His lengthy Senate oration will not get in the way of Wednesday’s vote. Business advocates for the Puerto Rico bill say Menendez is wrong to oppose it because it will ultimately help the island.
Senate leaders from both parties have said they’ll support the Puerto Rico measure, which has already passed the House, as the clock winds down on a July 1 debt payment deadline.
Menendez emphasized the need for Puerto Rico to shape the framework of its own financial recovery, rather than Congress. He insisted on offering five amendments to the measure, including one that would give Puerto Ricans more of a voice on the proposed oversight board, which he said would wield “colonial-level powers” in its current state. One of his amendments would “prevent federal overreach” by striking a provision that would give the oversight board sway over government actions.
“There’s no clear pathway to restructuring, which is the only reason we should be considering the bill in the first place,” Menendez said. “We owe it to the people of Puerto Rico to have open and robust debate on this bill.”
The Senate will take a procedural vote on the bill on Wednesday, which will require the support of 60 senators. Senate leaders offered cautious optimism on Tuesday that the motion to proceed will pass on a bipartisan basis, pushing a final vote on passage to Thursday at the latest.
Senators, including Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), said they would have preferred an amendment process, but they will accept the bill as it is as time runs out on the debt payment deadline.
Menendez maintained that the deadline would not stop him from opposing the bill if it is not amended. “The July 1 deadline is not the end of the world,” Menendez said on the floor. “Don’t make July 1 the end of democracy for Puerto Ricans.”
Menendez blasted the proposed fiscal oversight board and said it would hamper democratic process in the territory.
“The whole purpose of this legislation was to give Puerto Rico access to restructuring, yet we are creating a control board with a supermajority,” he said. He also is protesting language that would allow cuts to the minimum wage for some workers. Democrats tried and failed to alter that language in the House.
Javier Ortiz, the executive director of the Puerto Rico Economic Recovery Initiative, who supports the House measure, said he respects Menendez’s commitment to Puerto Rico, but disagrees with him on how to address its debt.
“His message about economic development is one that resonates with me,” Ortiz told Morning Consult in an interview. He said he doesn’t like what Menendez is doing to protest the measure, but he sees it as “democracy at work.”
“We disagree on the approach to PROMESA,” he said, referring to the bill by name.
While Menendez railed against the establishment of an oversight board to supervise the debt restructuring process, Ortiz countered that the bill wouldn’t allow the panel to overstep its bounds and supersede local officials’ interests.
“It would prevent the board from taking any actions that are inconsistent with good governance” by local officials, Ortiz said.
“We should get PROMESA passed today,” he said. “Puerto Rico has a 118-year history under the U.S. flag that is for the most part unknown to members of Congress today. Yet members of Congress are being asked to make very difficult decisions for something that they really don’t know anything about. PROMESA provides members of Congress with the unique opportunity to learn about all the things that they don’t know anything about regarding Puerto Rico.”