Puerto Rico emerges as key issue in budget fight

Posted at 2:26 PM, Dec 17, 2015

WASHINGTON — Some House Democrats are strongly pushing back against the bipartisan spending bill unveiled late Tuesday because it doesn’t include language that would allow Puerto Rico to file for bankruptcy.

Members of the Hispanic Caucus, the Black Caucus and others loudly complained in listening sessions with Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi that failing to help Puerto Rico deal with a serious debt crisis may lead them to oppose the deal. And with House Speaker Paul Ryan already facing significant defections from Republicans critical of the deal, the prospects of Democrats peeling off in big numbers complicates the math for getting the needed 218 votes for the deal on a vote slated for Friday.

“There is not an insignificant level of anxiety” among House Democrats, Rep. Steve Israel of New York told CNN about the spending package, saying it is fueled mainly by complaints about the lack of action on Puerto Rico, but also by a move to do away with a 40-year-old ban on exporting crude oil.

The rumblings about the Puerto Rico issue got loud enough that Ryan, seeking to protect the deal, released a statement Wednesday vowing to take action on the issue next year.

“While we could not agree to including precedent-setting changes to bankruptcy law in this omnibus spending bill, I understand that many members on both sides of the aisle remain committed to addressing the challenges facing the territory,” Ryan said, pledging committees would draft a remedy in the first quarter of 2016.

House Democrats huddled behind closed doors on Thursday morning to plot a path forward. Pelosi told her members that she’ll support the funding package.

The opposition that became apparent Wednesday afternoon marked an escalation from the initial response to the massive 2,009-page spending bill — plus a separate package of $650 billion in tax breaks — congressional leaders agreed to late Tuesday night. The legislation left members of both parties grumbling but generally feeling that it included provisions they support.

The year-end crush on the large and complex bills comes days before the Christmas holidays. With the tight calendar, and arguments that there is something good for everyone in the bill, leaders still hope to cobble together bipartisan votes on both items before the week is out.

‘I’ve got a lot of problems’

But the task won’t be easy.

Republicans were upset a wide range of policy riders they wanted attached — such as a provision to require more rigorous vetting of refugees from Iraq and Syria — didn’t make it into the bill.

“I’ve got a lot of problems,” GOP Rep. Richard Hudson of North Carolina told CNN, listing a host of riders involving water and environmental regulations that didn’t make it in, plus the refugee bill he authored.

Hudson said he understands Ryan faced tough challenges negotiating with the White House and Democrats, but said, “You’re asking me to support a lot of bad policy. I’m just not sure I can get there.”

After GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump’s controversial comments about banning Muslims from entering the U.S., Illinois Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger said the pressure increased on the GOP to get the language on Syrian refugees to the spending deal.

But the former Air Force pilot told reporters, “I don’t think this is the kind of thing that should kill fixing sequester on our military,” stressing that his party needed to back the measure that did eliminate scheduled cuts to the Pentagon budget at a time it was ramping up the fight against ISIS.

Ryan downplayed what didn’t make it into the bill and instead argued the move to lift a 40-year-old ban on exporting crude oil is “huge.”

“This is a big win for American jobs and for our energy industry. This is a big win for our manufacturers and for our foreign policy,” Ryan said.

That provision, in turn, left some Democrats upset.

“It’s certainly a bitter pill for a great many of us,” Rep. Adam Schiff, D-California, said about the oil provision.

Schiff explained an internal struggle on how he will ultimately vote. He represents a pro-environment constituency in California, but as the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, he was pleased leaders added two major bills to the large package: the intelligence authorization bill and a cybersecurity bill.

Meanwhile, Ryan touted a commitment he says he got from Reid that Democrats would not block spending bills from coming up for vote on the Senate floor. This is all part of Ryan’s push to return to “regular order” and avoid rolling bills into a last-minute massive deal like this omnibus measure.

Idaho GOP Rep. Mike Simpson, a member of the appropriations panel, told reporters, “To me, that’s huge.”

But some of the frustration extended to the other side of the Capitol. Arizona Sen. John McCain was furious and threatened to vote against the bill because of a provision that he says was “snuck” into the bill to allow the U.S. to buy rockets from Russia for the American space program despite a prohibition that passed in a recent defense bill. He complained that buying the expensive hardware would bolster Russian President Vladimir Putin who has worked against the U.S. in Ukraine and Syria.

Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Alabama, and Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, denied they snuck in the provision but acknowledged having a deep disagreement with McCain over cutting off purchases from Russia and how best to supply the engines for U.S. space program.

No earmarks, but goodies for constituents

Congress got rid of earmarks — pet projects and money designated for specific districts, but lawmakers were quick to claim credit for provisions they got in the bill to help back home.

A flurry of press releases listed examples of projects that amounted to jobs and money for both Democrats and Republicans. Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland announced she had secured almost $400 million in her quest to get the FBI to move its headquarters to Maryland. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, got $50 million in security funding for the upcoming Republican National Convention in Cleveland. Tennessee Republican Sen. Bob Corker, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, got $25 million for the End Modern Slavery Initiative he supports.

Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, who is in a tight re-election race, told reporters there is money to battle opioid abuse in her state.

“My state is facing a public health epidemic, so I’m very pleased to see that in there,” she said

Leaders push for passage

Leaders from both parties urged members to pocket the wins they got, vote for the bill, and move on to the next legislative fights in 2016.

“I have no reason to believe that we’re going to have a shutdown. In divided government, you don’t get everything you want,” Ryan told reporters on Wednesday morning after a closed-door session with members to review the details.

“This is a good compromise,” Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid said on the floor.

The White House also backed the package on Wednesday.

Pelosi released a statement noting “concerns” have arisen from her members about the deal and she spent much of the day hearing out members of own party.

She made no secret of her strong dislike for the tax measure, but on the spending bill she was reserved, telling reporters, “We are trying to be as positive as possible because we must keep government open. But we’re going to make a knowledgeable vote about it.”