WASHINGTON — Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are responding to the wave of anger sweeping across Puerto Rico, as thousands of protesters clashed with police overnight, demanding that Governor Ricardo Rosselló resign.
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In the past, Puerto Rican and U.S. officials have clashed when it comes to the allocation of federal resources after decades of growing debt and bankruptcy on the island. The rising tensions are now making the U.S. territory’s relationship with Washington even more complicated.
The frustration on the island is currently at an all-time high after several local officials were arrested last week in a federal corruption probe and revelations of an alleged derogatory and profane group chat targeting the Governor’s critics.
“Certainly the people of Puerto Rico are right to be outraged that you had corruption in the administration,” said Rep. Darren Soto (D-9th District), who represents a large Puerto Rican community and is of Puerto Rican descent.
The President’s public feud with Puerto Rican leaders on full display on Twitter Thursday, repeating his claim that Congress “foolishly” gave $92 billion in relief aid going to the island after Hurricane Maria.
“Of course it’s going to have an impact on us here,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) said. “I view it as my job to do all I can to make sure these American citizens, these people are not punished for the wrongdoing of politicians.”
Walking a fine line
For lawmakers who represent large Puerto Rican populations, they’ll have to navigate potentially difficult terrain as they attempt to promote policies on behalf of the U.S. territory that does not have representation in Washington.
“Ironically, we are passing a $14 billion Medicaid bill just out of committee yesterday that I sponsored to help fix the major healthcare problems down on the island,” Soto explained.
“It’s a best and worst of times right now up here in Washington with regard to issues related to the island,” he added.
While protesters continue to call for Puerto Rican Governor Rosselló’s resignation, the Florida delegation is not going that far.
“That’s a decision Governor Rosselló is going to have to make and the citizens will make when he has his re-election,” said Sen. Rick Scott (R-Florida).
While the junior senator made several trips to Puerto Rico after the storm during his time as Florida governor, he has a complex relationship with the governor, who chose to endorse Scott’s opponent, incumbent former Senator Bill Nelson in the 2018 Senate race.
Scott said he believes all credibility with leaders on the island has been lost.
“Everybody involved has to be held to the highest standard and all of the elected and appointed they have to do their job,” Scott said.
Lawmakers now are advancing stricter oversight measures for Puerto Rico, which include mandatory audits of their Medicaid program for fraud and the creation of tracking system to account for how federal funding is being spent.