By Peter Schroeder – 05/08/16 02:16 PM EDT The Hill
Donald Trump has become a wild card in Speaker Paul Ryan’s effort to win House passage of a debt relief package for Puerto Rico.
A pair of confusing interviews from the presumptive GOP presidential nominee has left competing impressions on whether he actually supports the emerging House legislation, which represents one of Ryan’s top legislative priorities.
House lawmakers are mulling a bill that would set up an outside control board for the island’s finances and allow it to restructure its debt, which now totals more than $70 billion.
Trump told CNN on Wednesday that he opposed a bailout of the island, even though the current House proposal does not direct any new federal dollars to the territory.
A day later, Trump told Fox News that it was inevitable the island would have to restructure its debt, which is a move that can only be forced by an act of Congress.
“You can restructure the debt without a bailout,” he said Thursday. “You can restructure the debt. Bondholders are going to take a hit; let the bondholders take a hit.”
The mixed messages from the self-proclaimed “king of debt” and presumptive GOP nominee come as Ryan and his leadership team tamp down “bailout” jitters from their rank-and-file members.
It also adds a new layer to brewing tension between Trump and the Wisconsin Republican. In a stunning move this week, the Speaker said he was not yet ready to back Trump, the only Republican left in the race, for president.
The sparring comes at a critical time for the bill, as GOP leaders are hoping to get the package back on track after progress derailed in April. Ryan originally set a goal of moving on Puerto Rico debt relief by March 31, but the House Natural Resources Committee had to hastily cancel a mid-April markup due to insufficient support in both parties.
Outside ads run in members’ home districts blasting the legislation as a “bailout” complicated matters for congressional leaders, as they had to take time to make clear that the bill did not spend new money on propping up the island.
Now, Republicans are claiming that the reworked bill is in its final stages and likely to again become public when lawmakers return to Washington next week.
The message from Ryan has been consistent on the bill: take up the measure now, or Washington will end up paying for it later with an actual bailout.
Former Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), who now represents a group of Puerto Rico bondholders, said that if Congress does not act to help the island navigate its crisis, the end result will be hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans, who are American citizens, moving to the mainland.
“A lot of folks in Puerto Rico are going to have to come to the United States to make ends meet,” he said. “Most of those folks getting started are going to have support from our social safety net, so it’s going to cost our taxpayers money.
“It’s really a profile in courage that the Speaker has taken on this issue,” he added.
Ryan has been aggressive in his support for the legislation, calling it a critical measure. His office reacted to Monday’s default of roughly $422 million in Puerto Rican debt payments by pushing the legislation hard.
“Without congressional action, things in Puerto Rico are going to go from bad to worse,” his office said. “[This bill] is the best hope for Puerto Rico to get to a place where it can pay its debts and get on a path to fiscal health.”
Trump’s foray into the Puerto Rico debate adds a new variable to what has already been a highly contentious and confusing fight. The subject has resulted in fights among Puerto Rican investors, as well as conservative organizations.
Ryan’s support for the bill, which he maintains will need bipartisan support, marks one of the first times as Speaker he has publicly thrown his weight behind a measure. And his push comes as some conservatives remain highly wary of Congress wading into Puerto Rico’s debt woes.
Heritage Action, the political arm of the Heritage Foundation, has been a consistent critic of the measure. Instead of allowing the island to go through a bankruptcy-type process, the organization wants Congress to slash regulations to boost businesses there.
FreedomWorks hit on a similar message Thursday, putting out a study making the case for “pro-growth policies that rein in Puerto Rico’s runaway spending.”
But other conservative heavyweight organizations have jumped into Ryan’s corner. Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform has been a vocal proponent of the legislation.
And the Council for Citizens Against Government Waste announced Friday it was going up with radio ads in the home districts of five conservative lawmakers touting the legislation.
Those ads will serve as a counterweight to the Center for Individual Freedom, which has regularly run ads in Washington blasting the bill as a “bailout.”
To further complicate matters, Congress is operating with a deadline of sorts. If lawmakers do not pass a bill by July 1, Puerto Rico is expect to default on roughly $2 billion of debt payments, which would be by far the largest missed payments so far for the island.