Pelosi’s Puerto Rico dilemma

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is holding her fire on Republicans when it comes to Puerto Rico.

UnknownTHEHILL – The Democratic leader aimed piercing criticism at Republicans on Friday for inaction on a host of issues as varied as the Zika crisis and the national budget: “Do your job,” she implored.

Pelosi then adopted an entirely different tone regarding Puerto Rico’s debt crisis, going out of her way to praise Speaker Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) efforts as genuine.
“I think they’re operating in good faith,” she said.

The shifting tones highlighted the California Democrat’s dual election-year roles.

As the opposition leader crusading to win back the House, Pelosi wants to do nothing to undercut the Democrats’ most trenchant campaign argument: that the Republicans are simply too dysfunctional to govern the country effectively. She’s determined to prevent Ryan and Republicans from winning any major legislative victories.

At the same time, Pelosi the legislative negotiator is signaling a willingness to work with Ryan on Puerto Rico to ensure a measure gets to President Obama’s desk.

Puerto Rico’s struggles hit a new stage of urgency on Monday, when the U.S. territory defaulted on roughly $422 million in debt payments.

“Faced with the inability to meet the demands of our creditors and the needs of our people, I had to make a choice,” Gov. Alejandro García Padilla said Sunday night in a televised address. “I decided that essential services for the 3.5 million American citizens in Puerto Rico came first.”

Attention now will turn to July 1 as the next potential deadline for action. On that date, the island is supposed to make roughly $2 billion in debt payments, and experts do not believe those payments will be made.

Pelosi has her own pressures to consider on Puerto Rico.

Chief among them, Puerto Rican officials are wary that granting too much power to the fiscal oversight board at the center of legislation drafted by House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) would steal from the territory’s autonomy.

García Padilla pushed back hard against a powerful board in his remarks Sunday, arguing it should not be designed to overrule the decisions of the island’s elected officials.

“It could become a public embarrassment for the United States to admit before the international community that while it fights for democracy in foreign lands, it denies democracy in its own backyard,” he said.

Furthermore, liberal members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus are concerned that labor provisions in the package will harm local workers, and labor unions have piled on, urging greater protections for workers’ pension funds they fear will be decimated under a debt restructuring.

In December, Pelosi insisted that Puerto Rico language be included in Congress’s end-of-year omnibus spending bill, but Republicans excluded the provision from the package. Instead, Ryan vowed action by March 31.

That deadline has come and gone, and more recent efforts by Bishop to draft a bill have hit a brick wall of conservative opposition.

Pelosi hasn’t been involved directly in the drafting talks, as Republican leaders are primarily focused on efforts to rally their own side behind a compromise. But she is in discussions with Ryan, largely to convey the concerns of the Democrats whose support will ultimately be needed if the Speaker expects Obama to sign a bill.

“They’re talking — they’re not hashing out details,” a Democratic leadership aide said Monday.

For his part, Ryan emphasizes at every turn the Puerto Rico bill will be a bipartisan one. He’s said he is aiming for majorities in both parties to support the bill.

Ryan also faces pressure inside and outside the House to get something done.

García Padilla blamed “internal partisan and ideological divisions” among House Republicans for exacerbating the crisis through inaction.

“Puerto Rico needs Speaker Paul Ryan to exercise his leadership,” he said.

Supporters of a legislative fix on both sides of the aisle are hoping Monday’s default will light a fire on Capitol Hill and erode the opposition that’s stalled the legislation.

“If, May 1, there is a default and all sorts of people go crazy again and the lawsuits start, I think that’s going to actually push people into saying, realizing, [Congress needs to act],” Bishop said last month. “I think people who are not taking this serious will take it serious at that point.”

But Ryan and other GOP leaders have struggled for months to persuade rank-and-file Republicans not only that Congress has a constitutional duty to oversee U.S. territories but also that a failure to act will lead to much bigger — and much more expensive — problems down the road.

The conservative opponents, including members of the sizable Freedom Caucus, are wary that congressional intervention will put taxpayers on the hook for the poor decisions of Puerto Rican officials. An outside dark-money ad campaign blasting the bill as a “bailout” made many members jittery and forced GOP leaders to forcefully point out that no federal dollars go to the island under the package.

Complicating the equation for Ryan, the Wisconsin Republican had accepted the Speaker’s gavel last year with vows to adopt a bottom-up approach that would empower the committees and lower-ranking members. Many Democrats have eagerly highlighted the GOP divisions by blasting Ryan’s reluctance to move legislation that fails to win the support of a majority of the Republican conference — an informal rule named for former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).

“The fact of the matter is, again, they cannot get consensus in their party,” Rep. Steny Hoyer (Md.), the Democratic whip, said recently, referring to the Puerto Rico impasse. “Heaven forbid that we would not pursue Dennis Hastert’s rule.”

Pelosi, for one, is hoping Ryan will abandon his bottom-up strategy for the sake of enacting a fix before then.

“The Speaker has an overriding, shall we say, principle, which is the committees shall do the work,” Pelosi said Friday. “But at some point, there’s going to have to be a moment where there’s got to be a leadership decision — that this is as good as it gets and this is what we’re going to take to the floor.

“Hopefully,” she added, “that will be very soon.”

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