SAN JUAN — Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) on Friday said he did not support efforts to grant Puerto Rico the right to authorize municipal bankruptcies, a position that puts him on the opposite side of the issue from Republican presidential rival Jeb Bush, Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton -- and most voters here on the cash-strapped island where he plans to campaign later in the day.
The Florida senator detailed his stance on the issue for the first time ahead of his campaign visit Friday to San Juan, where he is expected to attend a fundraiser and meet with voters here in Puerto Rico’s capital. The release of his position also appears timed to present a strong policy contrast with Clinton, who is hosting a campaign event of her own in San Juan that begins just two hours after Rubio's.
“Allowing Puerto Rican municipalities to reorganize their debts under Chapter 9 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code would not solve Puerto Rico’s problems,” Rubio wrote in a Friday morning op-ed published on Medium, “and should only be a measure of last resort considered if Puerto Rico takes significant steps to fix its budget and economic mess.”
The Spanish version of Rubio's op-ed will run in El Nuevo Dia, Puerto Rico's largest daily newspaper.
The issue has been politically fraught for Rubio, whose campaign has pitched him as a powerful messenger to independent Hispanic voters while also heavily courting deeply conservative donors who remain opposed to the measure. If he came out in opposition, he stood to alienate a key voting demographic poised to support the measure -- one increasingly likely to play a major role in the critical Florida primary, where Rubio would face off with Bush, the state's former governor. But if he embraced the policy, he risked turning off some of the major donors his campaign will need to remain competitive.
Earlier this summer, both Clinton and Bush came out in favor of giving the Puerto Rican government equal treatment under Chapter 9 bankruptcy laws, which allows the 50 states to grant municipal entities access to bankruptcy protections. (The most vivid example of such authority came in 2013, when the city of Detroit filed for bankruptcy.) Because of Puerto Rico's status as a territory, it does not currently have the legal access to Chapter 9. Democratic Puerto Rico Gov. Alejandro García Padilla has strongly lobbied Congress to grant that access.
Rubio previously declined to support a bill by Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) that would do just that. Proponents of that measure say that it would give Puerto Rico needed assistance as it restructures its heavy debt burden; opponents say it would pave the way for a federal bailout of the island.
While Rubio did not mention Bush in his op-ed, he took direct aim at Clinton and the Obama administration, accusing them of supporting policies that would only further damage Puerto Rico’s struggling economy.
“So far, Hillary Clinton’s liberal hosts in San Juan today have failed to propose any serious measures to fix Puerto Rico’s economic challenges,” Rubio wrote. “… By turning America away from the Obama agenda that Hillary Clinton would expand, and instead implementing my conservative agenda, we can create favorable conditions for a Puerto Rican renaissance as part of a new American economy in the 21st century.”
Rubio also called on the U.S. government to hold a federally sponsored vote on statehood to resolve the island’s tenuous relationship with the United States. As residents of a U.S. territory, Puerto Ricans are granted U.S. citizenship — but, like both the District of Columbia and other territories, Puerto Rico does not have voting representation in Congress, and residents cannot cast votes in presidential elections.
Puerto Ricans can, however, vote in the presidential primaries -- where they will have the opportunity to register their reaction to Rubio's position.
Sean Sullivan contributed to this report.