WASHINGTON (AP) — Senate Republican and Democratic leaders on Tuesday promised to complete a rescue package for debt-stricken Puerto Rico before a $2 billion debt payment comes due on Friday.
“Failure is really not an option,” Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told reporters after meeting with his GOP caucus. Separately, Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew lobbied Democrats to back the package in a last-minute bid to secure the votes and help the U.S. territory with its crippling $70 billion debt.
The package, backed by the White House, Democrats and Republicans, would create a control board and restructure some of the debt. A vote is scheduled on Wednesday.
Lew met with reluctant Democrats and urged them to vote for it, even though he said it isn’t perfect.
“The fact that this works and it gives Puerto Rico the ability to move forward is just an overwhelming reason to pass this in a timeframe that prevents the descent into chaos,” Lew said.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., backs the legislation. At least one reluctant Democrat signed on.
“I’m not going to let the adequate be the enemy of the barely sufficient,” said Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee.
But at least one Democrat remained staunchly opposed. Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey monopolized the Senate floor for several hours to protest the legislation that he warned adopts a colonial approach to the territory.
Menendez said ordinary Puerto Ricans get little say and the package favors hedge-fund creditors over island pensioners. Menendez vowed to speak for several hours though his effort wasn’t a true filibuster since a vote had been scheduled.
“I think the 3.5 million United States citizens who call Puerto Rico home deserve more than being jammed in a legislative process where their lives and their futures are going to be dictated by some time by a control board,” Menendez said.
The House is out of session until July 5, so the Senate will have to pass the House bill unchanged for it to head to the president’s desk for his signature before the Friday deadline.
Lew and Puerto Rican Gov. Alejandro Garcia Padilla made last-minute visits to Capitol Hill to lobby for votes. While the legislation has support from the Obama administration and Senate Republican and Democratic leaders, some senators in both parties said they would oppose it.
Some were Democrats like Menendez who said the legislation had colonial overtones. Some Republicans echoed the concerns of bondholders who have argued that the bill is unfair to banks and tantamount to a bailout for the territory.
And a bipartisan group of lawmakers from Ohio and West Virginia threatened to vote against proceeding to the bill in an effort to force action on unrelated legislation that would help coal miners’ pensions.
“If we’re going to help Puerto Rico escape bankruptcy, we should also be helping the 90,000 coal miners in Ohio, West Virginia and elsewhere who are also suffering the effects of the coal bankruptcies,” Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said.