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U.S. Treasury's Lew urges action on Puerto Rico ahead of visit

U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew gives a news conference at the 2015 IMF/World Bank Annual Meetings in Lima, Peru, October 9, 2015. REUTERS/Mariana Bazo

WASHINGTON/NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew on Friday urged Congress to urgently pass legislation to help Puerto Rico, ahead of a trip to the U.S. territory next week, according to the U.S. Treasury Department and a letter sent from Lew to House Speaker Paul Ryan on Friday.

Puerto Rico is grappling with $70 billion debt and has begun to default on some of its bond issues. It is negotiating with creditors to restructure its borrowings, but is facing a lawsuit from bond insurers who backed its debt.

Lew has previously urged Congress to act, but its sweeping spending and tax legislation approved at the end of the year did not include measures to allow Puerto Rico the same bankruptcy protections that U.S. states have - an issue which Democrats have pushed.

Lew, who will visit San Juan on Jan. 20, will meet with Puerto Rico Governor Garcia Padilla, among others, to “discuss the urgent situation in Puerto Rico,” the department said in a statement.

“In order to assist the 3.5 million Americans living in Puerto Rico, Congress must pass legislation for the president to sign into law by the end of March,” Lew said in the letter to Ryan.

Puerto Rico needs federal legislation to allow it to restructure its debts and give it independent fiscal oversight, the letter said.

Ryan said in December that he had instructed committees to come up with a responsible solution to Puerto Rico’s problems and that the plans should be crafted by the end of March.

Reporting by Susan Heavey and Megan Davies; editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Bernadette Baum and G Crosse