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Reid: This Is About Giving Puerto Rico the Same Tools that Every State Has

Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) ended 2015 with poignant remarks on the Senate floor about the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico:

Mr. President, 18,000 Puerto Ricans served in the Armed Forces in World War I; 65,000 in the Second World War; 61,000 during the Korean war; 48,000 in the Vietnam war. Since 1917, more than 200,000 American citizens from Puerto Rico have served in the U.S. Armed Forces, serving in every conflict since World War I. A previous leader of the Senate asked me to represent the Senate in a ceremony in Puerto Rico a number of years ago as they were dedicating the monument to fallen soldiers of Puerto Rico in conflicts involving the United States and other countries. I have never forgotten that. I have a warm spot in my heart for Puerto Rico, a wonderful part of our country and a territory of the United States with a beautiful rain forest. I have been there. I have fond memories. I have been there a few times, but I really like Puerto Rico.

Today, as they have helped us in these battles, Puerto Ricans who live in Puerto Rico need our help. Right now, the people of Puerto Rico are drowning in over $72 billion in debt. It is a sparsely populated territory with, I think, about 3.5 million people. They have more debt per capita than any U.S. State, of course. The territory is facing a severe economic and fiscal crisis, and it is becoming a humanitarian crisis. Leader Pelosi and I fought to include meaningful provisions in an omnibus spending package to assist Puerto Rico, including empowering Puerto Rico to readjust a significant portion of its debt. Unfortunately, Republicans refused to work with us to address Puerto Rico’s massive debt in a meaningful way. Instead of seizing the last chance Congress has this year to do the right thing for Puerto Ricans, they turned their backs on 3.5 million citizens of the United States who are Puerto Ricans and live in Puerto Rico.

To be clear, helping Puerto Rico doesn’t mean bailing the island out of its massive debt. They don’t need that. They don’t need a massive check from the taxpayers. This is about giving Puerto Rico and their leaders the same tools that every State has—the same tools that are currently available in every State. Puerto Rico is part of the United States, and the people of Puerto Rico are looking to Members of Congress to step in as partners. That is our job.

The territory is facing a massive $900 million payment in bond payments on January 1 to its bond holders. Puerto Rico’s Governor said yesterday that the island will default in January or May. We can’t wait.

Next year—likely the first half of 2016, the same period in which Puerto Rico is expected to default on its debt—Congress will present a Congressional Gold Medal in honor of the 65th Infantry Regiment, which suffered such massive casualties over time. This infantry regiment was a U.S. Army unit consisting mostly of Puerto Rican soldiers that distinguished itself for its remarkable service during the Korean war. It is shameful to think that Congress can at once recognize the extraordinary contributions of Puerto Ricans, who have made the ultimate sacrifice for their country, and then do nothing to protect Puerto Ricans when they turn to us for help in a time of crisis.

Inaction is not an option. Puerto Rico needs to do its part, and so must Congress. As Puerto Rico’s Resident Commissioner has said: ‘‘This is not just a Puerto Rican problem; this is an American problem, requiring an American solution.’’ We can do something to help, and we must do something to help. We can work together to pass legislation that allows Puerto Rico to restructure a significant part of its debt without costing U.S. taxpayers a penny. These bonds are not bonds of the U.S. Government. People have made investments. Like every other investment, sometimes they go bad. Theirs went bad as a result of the crash we had here 9 years ago or so on Wall Street. The Obama administration and congressional Democrats want to do something to help. We have asked Republicans to join us in this effort, but so far they have only stood in the way.

All we want is to simply say that a territory of the United States—and we will limit it, of course, to Puerto Rico—has the ability, like every other State, to file for bankruptcy protection. Just last week, the senior Senator from New York asked for unanimous consent to adopt the Puerto Rico Chapter 9 Uniformity Act—a bill that would extend chapter 9 of the bankruptcy code to Puerto Rico and allow it to restructure its municipal debt in the same way other States can. But instead of giving Puerto Rico the same rights as Kentucky, Nevada, Illinois or Utah, the chairman of the Finance Committee, from Utah, blocked this critical legislation.

I understand there are important issues that must be discussed, such as the nature and scope of this authority, but to deny Puerto Rico any restructuring authority, as the Republicans have done, is negligent. I hope that recent comments by Republican leaders, including Speaker Ryan, will translate into meaningful action. Senate Democrats are ready to work across the aisle on a real solution for Puerto Rico, with the understanding that any viable plan moving forward will be a Federal process that allows Puerto Rico to adjust its debt. To deny Puerto Rico any restructuring authority is not just bad for Puerto Rico, it is bad for the creditors as well. So I say to my Republican colleagues: Let’s work together to extend a helping hand to our fellow citizens in Puerto Rico. It should be in this bill that we are going to vote on tomorrow.

Giving the people of Puerto Rico the tools necessary to resolve this fiscal crisis is the right thing to do. It is the moral thing to do.

December 17, 2015

See the remarks in the Congressional Record.

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