Ryan sticks neck out on Puerto Rico debt relief bill

Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has faced several hurdles since taking the gavel as Speaker, but he’s stuck his neck out the furthest for Puerto Rico.

Weeks into his new job, Ryan promised that the House would take up legislation to help the U.S. territory.

By Peter Schroeder - 04/17/16 10:30 AM EDT

By Peter Schroeder – 04/17/16 10:30 AM EDT

THEHILL – Ryan has little to show for his effort so far, but is making a concerted effort to get legislation through Congress in the face of criticism from his party and a loud advertising campaign from opponents calling it a bailout.
The effort poses risks for Ryan, who has enjoyed an extended honeymoon in a Speakership that has had none of the problems so far of his predecessor’s.

Ryan has publicly supported legislation sponsored being shepherded through the House by Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah).

The Speaker has adamantly dismissed claims that the bill would bail out the island after years of fiscal mismanagement — a message he and others hammered home at a full GOP conference meeting on Friday dedicated to the issue.

GOP leaders emphasized that giving Puerto Rico the power to rework its debt now is the best way to prevent Congress from having to use taxpayer dollars later to stop a complete economic meltdown on the island.

That message appears to have resonated, as members of all stripes came out of Friday’s meeting echoing Ryan’s message that the bill was not a bailout.

“The attitude in there was much different than it would have been a year ago,” said Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.), referring to the frequent opposition to efforts by Ryan’s predecessor, former Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).

“We came into the week with sort of the, ‘Here’s the bill, take it or leave it.’ And we’re leaving the week with, ‘OK, we recognize the body has some concerns about it. What steps can we take to fix it?’”

In some ways, the back and forth on the Puerto Rico bill carries all the hallmarks of intraparty drama that was endemic under Boehner.

Leadership was throwing their weight behind a key piece of legislation, but conservatives were airing vocal concerns. The bill was set to move and then was abruptly halted, — a Wednesday markup was abruptly cancelled — as members huddled to figure out their next step.

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) contended that the fight this time isn’t a classic “conservatives versus establishment” battle that was commonplace under Boehner.

Instead, he and other rank-and-file members and some leaders described Friday’s meeting as mainly an educational one to get members up to speed on the intricacies of Puerto Rican debt obligations.

Similar statements were made in Boehner-era legislative fights, but some conservatives argue there are differences in the current situation.

Conservatives bristled at Boehner’s efforts to push through critical bills, arguing their input was minimized. Ryan vowed a more inclusive approach when taking the gavel.

So far, members say he is taking that input seriously.

At the same time, there is real opposition on the right to doing anything for Puerto Rico.

Rep. John Fleming (R-La.) has been a vocal opponent of the bill, and argued Congress should stay out of it, and let the courts sort out who gets paid from Puerto Rico’s insufficient revenues.

“We didn’t cause the problem. Puerto Rico caused the problem,” he said Friday. “This so-called oversight board is not going to fix their cash flow problem.”

Even conservatives complimentary of Ryan’s approach are not yet convinced to back the plan. Mulvaney said he was undecided on the bill, and his indecision rested on whether it made sense to do anything at all.

“If you’re going to do something, the bill might be a halfway decent bill,” he said. “I’ve got to get it straight on whether it’s better to do a bill or simply let the process play out under existing law.”

The conservative group Heritage Action criticized the bill earlier in the week, saying Congress should push a series of economic and regulatory reforms on the island instead of letting it rework some of its debt obligations.

“This is not a constructive, conservative solution to Puerto Rico’s problems,” said spokesman Dan Holler.

Ryan wants a majority of his conference on board his plan, but will also need some Democrats — making a final deal difficult.

It appears unlikely the House will be able to take action on legislation by May 1, when the island is expected to default on a significant debt payment. A much larger debt payment is due July 1.

“We were hoping for May 1st,” said Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). “I don’t know if that’s still possible.”

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest cast skepticism on some provisions of the bill Friday. In particular, he said the administration opposed a provision that would lower the minimum wage in Puerto Rico for younger workers.

With those challenges looming, Ryan is receiving kudos for listening to members. But it remains to be seen whether that support translates into votes.

“There is some level of urgency, but at the same time it’s one of those things where the Speaker wants to get it right,” said Rep. Bill Flores (R-Texas), chairman of the Republican Study Conference. “I think they’re getting close. But I need to look at the next draft.”

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