Just days removed from one compromise in the House of Representatives, President Barack Obama has called on the U.S. Senate to reach one of its own. During his weekly video and radio address Saturday, the president urged the body to approve a bill that would allow Puerto Rico to restructure its debt and restore some stability to its public services.
“Power is being cut off at homes and hospitals,” the president said. “Teachers have to choose between turning on the lights or turning on the computers. Doctors can’t get medicine to treat newborns unless they pay in cash.
“This bill won’t cost federal taxpayers a dime,” Obama continued. “It doesn’t include special-interest bailouts. And it gives Puerto Rico the ability to restructure its debt, safeguard essential services and provide important protections to public pensions that more than 300,000 folks rely on to retire with dignity.”
For years, Puerto Rico has been struggling to deal with a debt load that now exceeds $70 billion. As part of its effort to avoid default, it struck deals with progressively more onerous terms, including several that required that the island pay its debts before funding its hospitals, schools and even its electrical grid, creating a situation that some have described as a humanitarian crisis.
Over the past several months, with defaults looming, the situation has grown into a prominent topic of conversation in the mainstream media. In late March, Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of the popular musical “Hamilton,” penned an op-ed in the New York Times calling on Congress to take action. Last month, John Oliver devoted an entire 20-minute segment of his HBO show to discussing the bailout.
On Thursday, in a rare moment of compromise, the House passed the bill, with bipartisan support. "The Puerto Rican people are our fellow Americans," House Speaker Paul D. Ryan said Thursday.
While Ryan wasn't quite right about that — Puerto Ricans do not pay federal income taxes, and they are not allowed to vote in federal elections — the subtext of his plea seemed to resonate: The bill passed by more than a 2-1 margin.
Whether or not the senate follows suit, the implications for Puerto Rico are massive. Puerto Rico owes another debt payment of $2 billion July 1.