Washington D. C.- The Democratic majority in the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee warned today that they want to advance a reduced version of legislation that would compensate Vieques residents -for damage caused by the U.S. Navy using the area as a bombing range and site for military-training exercise- to avoid a jurisdictional problem that would halt the proposal.
Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González unsuccessfully proposed amending the language - which has been incorporated into the Natural Resources Committee’s agenda within the House Budget Reconciliation Bill - to place the compensation process in the hands of the U.S. Department of Justice, not Interior.
The original bills by Commissioner Gonzalez and Puerto Rican Democrat Representative Nydia Velázquez (N.Y.) to compensate Vieques residents and the Vieques government for U.S. Navy training in the area, proposed to pay the compensation through a Justice Department compensation fund.
But both Velázquez and fellow Puerto Rican Darren Soto (Fla.) and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) indicated that to move the measure through the Senate and comply with the rules of a Budget Reconciliation Bill, they are placing the compensation process in the hands of a special commissioner from the Department of the Interior, an agency under the jurisdiction of their committee.
“I refuse to go backward on the progress that we have made...This is the train that is leaving the station,” said Velázquez, who at a time when Republicans oppose the Budget Reconciliation bill, encouraged Commissioner González to work with the Democratic majority.
Commissioner González is concerned that the measure faces complications anyway because the legislation includes a $300 million appropriation to the Interior Department’s Office of Insular Affairs to compensate Vieques residents, even though Puerto Rico is not under that agency’s jurisdiction. The Justice Department has the capacity and the legal authority, said the commissioner, who is part of the Republican minority.
González criticized the $300 million cap on the compensation fund that would be managed by the special commissioner. She said her bill does not establish a limit and Velázquez’s measure recommends appropriating $1 billion. She also objected that it does not specify how to decide the compensation and does not obligate the allocation of funds for a trauma center in Vieques.
She said that her bill and Velázquez´s propose that compensation comes through a fund already created in the Justice Department as claims come. This has the advantage that no new money is allocated: it comes from an existing source and is only obligated as claims come. González described the Democratic language as a “watered-down” version of her measure.
Grijalva, meanwhile, said he had to draft the bill based on a limited amount of money allocated by the Democratic leadership - about $30 billion - to the Natural Resources Committee as part of the $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation bill.
According to sources, Democrats want to try to increase the Vieques compensation fund in the Senate, where the final content of the Budget Reconciliation bill can be decided.
The Republican Minority Leader on the Committee, Bruce Westerman (Arkansas), supported González’s amendment, which he considered only makes a technical change. But, at the same time, he acknowledged that the amendment may leave the legislation out of the jurisdiction of the Natural Resources Committee.
The Natural Resources Committee Democratic majority has also included legislation in the Budget Reconciliation bill also includes language from a measure by Commissioner González to study the potential for and authorize offshore wind energy development in the Exclusive Economic Zone adjacent to the five U.S. territories, including Puerto Rico.
But, they opposed another González amendment that would allow the Interior Department, once it is determined whether wind resources are feasible, to begin a process to auction lease rights, where 37.5 percent of qualifying revenues would go to the territory for environmental mitigation and 12.5 percent would be reserved for coral reef protection.
Although such legislation has passed the House before, Democrats, according to sources, do not want to create rights that states in the Gulf of México do not have.
Although Democrats rejected Republican amendments that they believe sought to damage the legislation, a final vote on the bill was postponed until September 9.
While Democrats control a 50-50 split Senate, since Vice President Kamala Harris can break ties, in the House they are 220-212 with three vacancies.
Thus, control of the debate over the Budget Reconciliation bill may be primarily in the hands of Senate Democrats, where conservative Joe Manchin (West Virginia) has already objected to the $3.5 trillion total.
Progressive House Democrats, however, have warned that they will not vote for the infrastructure investment bill passed in the Senate until that chamber approves the Budget Reconciliation measure that includes social initiatives such as universal pre-K, funding for child care centers, free tuition at community colleges and fighting climate change.