Puerto Rico Debt Bill Clears Senate, Heads to White House

Flag of Puerto Rico

The Senate passed a House-approved bill Wednesday evening to help Puerto Rico restructure about $70 billion in debt, sending the measure to President Obama’s desk for his signature.

Ending an eleventh-hour scramble to meet the territory’s July 1 debt payment deadline, senators voted 68-30 in favor of the bill. The measure, which cleared a procedural hurdle Wednesday morning and faced two more procedural votes before passing, made strange bipartisan matches among supporters and opponents. Obama is expected to sign the bill.

Reluctant Republicans and Democrats resigned themselves to the compromise measure, which nobody loved, as the Friday deadline for the island to make a $2 billion payment neared. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and Puerto Rico Gov. Alejandro García Padilla urged senators to pass the legislation before the deadline, when Puerto Rico would almost certainly default.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) called the bill “far from perfect,” but said it was a “step forward” for the financially strapped territory. “I wish we would have done more,” he said.

“It’s the only option on the table,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah).

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) urged support for the bill ahead of the vote. “It’s important we pass this legislation and get our work done,” he said. “I hope we’ll have a big vote in favor of fiscal responsibility.”

A day ahead of the vote, Republicans discussed the bill in a closed-door meeting, according to a senior GOP aide. The argument that convinced many of the rank-and-file members to support the measure was this: If Puerto Rico defaulted on its debt, the taxpayers would almost certainly be on the hook for a bailout. With the fiscal oversight board overseeing a measured restructuring of the debt, as the bill provides, no taxpayer dollars would be needed.

The measure drew vocal opposition from Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.). He tried in vain to crack open the full amendment process that was barred by an earlier Wednesday vote by filing a motion to table one of the pending amendments.

The move was the latest in Menendez’s fierce campaign against the legislation, which he said would give a fiscal oversight board too much power and keep Puerto Ricans out of the rebuilding process. Menendez held the floor for about four hours Tuesday evening to insist on changing the legislation. If he had succeeded, the measure would have needed to go back to the House, which is in recess until July 5.

Menendez also took issue with a provision that would allow lower wages for some workers. Other Democrats didn’t like that language either, but were willing to accept it to allow debt restructuring to go forward.

Menendez said Wednesday the legislation would saddle Puerto Ricans with an “omnipotent control board that they don’t even want.”

“PROMESA, the Spanish word for promise, is not a promise. It’s a power play,” he said, referring to the bill’s name. “My amendment would ensure that the people of Puerto Rico have a voice in their future.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) also railed against the measure on the floor Wednesday.

“The U.S. must not become a colonial master, which is precisely what this legislation allows,” he said. “We cannot and must not take away the democratic rights of the 3.5 million people of Puerto Rico.”

Morning Consult