WASHINGTON – House Republicans have missed a self-imposed deadline for a plan to help Puerto Rico manage $70 billion in debt, adjourning on Friday without introducing a bill.
Legislation was expected this week to create a control board to help manage the U.S. territory's financial obligations and oversee some debt restructuring. It would have been the third version of the House bill, which has come under fire from conservatives who feared it would set a precedent for financially ailing states and Democrats concerned the control board would be too powerful.
House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop, R-Utah, has led negotiations on the bill and has said he wants support from both Democrats and Republicans. The aim is to write legislation that could pass both the House and the Senate before Puerto Rico defaults on a $2 billion debt payment due July 1. The territory missed a nearly $370 million bond payment May 1 -- the largest so far in a series of missed payments since last year.
In an interview for C-SPAN's "Newsmakers" program, Bishop said Friday negotiations are ongoing and a bill is expected soon. He said he believes the House needs to move forward but lawmakers want to make sure the legislation doesn't have any remaining constitutional or legal issues.
"We have one shot at getting this right," Bishop said. "Once this bill starts moving I think it moves through Congress very quickly, it will be on the president's desk."
Puerto Rico has been mired in economic stagnation for a decade. Financial problems grew worse as a result of setbacks in the wider U.S. economy, and government spending in Puerto Rico continued unchecked. Borrowing covered increasing deficits and bonds were sold on special terms. More than 200,000 people have left Puerto Rico in the past five years, reducing the island's tax base.
The control board would direct the island to create a fiscal plan, including directing the territory to provide adequate funding for pensions. The island has underfunded public pension obligations by more than $40 billion.
He said the final version yet to be released will be similar to previous versions, including the control board setup.
"That basic concept of what we want to do has been agreed to by everybody that's a player, and so I think regardless of what the final version is, that structure will be there," Bishop said on C-SPAN.
Treasury Secretary Jack Lew has been part of the negotiations, and traveled to the island on Monday to push Congress on the issue. He toured a San Juan elementary school struggling with insects and limited electricity and a hospital unable to provide some basic services to infants. He said economic troubles in Puerto Rico can only get worse if Washington doesn't act soon.