Sanders Bucks Democratic Leaders, Calls for Opposition to Puerto Rico Bill

In a message to fellow Senate Democratic caucus members, Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) on Monday called for the defeat of emergency legislation to address Puerto Rico’s fiscal crisis.

A bill introduced last week by House Republicans would require the island territory to give up its budget-making autonomy in exchange for debt relief. The measure has the tentative support of the Obama administration and Democratic leadership.

Puerto Rico is currently $72 billion in the hole, and already defaulting on financial obligations. Sanders, a presidential hopeful, said in a statement that the proposed initiative would “make a terrible situation even worse.”

He took aim at a federal oversight board that under the legislation would have direct control of the nation’s fiscal affairs, including the power to cut spending, raise taxes, and privatize public assets without the input or approval of Puerto Rico’s democratically-elected government.

“We must never give an unelected control board the power to balance Puerto Rico’s budget on the backs of children, senior citizens, the sick and the most vulnerable people in Puerto Rico while giving the people of Puerto Rico absolutely no say at all in the process,” Sanders said in a statement.

Sanders also took aim at measures in the bill that would shred labor protections on the island. The legislation would exempt Puerto Ricans workers from new Department of Labor overtime rules and some federal minimum wage laws.

Puerto Rico is seeking the power to declare bankruptcy and restructure its debt — a maneuver that the territory is currently forbidden from doing by federal law. Bankruptcy proceedings are also heavily opposed by vulture funds–financial interests that have purchased chunks of the nation’s debt for pennies on the dollar, but don’t want to take any losses on those investments.

“We have an important choice to make,” Sanders told Senate Democrats in a letter, “do we stand with the working people of Puerto Rico or do we stand with Wall Street and the Tea Party? The choice could not be clearer.”

Although it objected to some of the language in the bill, the Obama administration has largely endorsed it.

“We are encouraged that Democrats and Republicans did work together to produce this piece of legislation. Bipartisanship is hard to come by in the United States Congress for a few years now,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said last week.

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) and Democratic Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) also support the bill.

Sanders’ opposition to the proposal could animate the current presidential race. His primary rival, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton approves of the deal. “We must move forward with this legislation,” she said on Friday.

Puerto Rico is scheduled to hold its Democratic Primary contest on June 5.

Sanders has proposed an alternative plan to deal with the island’s debt crisis, which includes allowing it to restructure its debt in bankruptcy court, as municipalities in the US are able to do. He also called on the Federal Reserve and the Treasury Department to provide loans to Puerto Rico to stimulate its economy.

“We must stop treating Puerto Rico like a colony and start treating the American citizens of Puerto Rico with the respect and dignity that they deserve during this very difficult period,” Sanders urged.