Rival Puerto Rico Bills Dim Democratic Hopes of a 51st State

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Two competing bills trying to end Puerto Rico’s status as one of the world’s oldest territories threaten to undermine each other -- damping hopes that the island might become the 51st U.S. state and a decisive power in Washington.

On one side are those who want to make Puerto Rico a peer of New York, California and Wyoming. A rival measure would explore all status options for the island, including independence, statehood, a compact between sovereign states “or any other option other than the current territorial arrangement.”

The efforts come as some Democrats, who long to address the structural imbalance of the Senate and Electoral College, see statehood for Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia as a way to solidify control of Congress for years to come. Puerto Rico leans Democratic, and if it were a state it would be eligible for two Senate seats and five House seats.

While both bills have Democratic support, they echo the century-old debate on the island about the benefits of statehood versus more autonomy, said Pedro Reina-Perez, a political analyst and columnist. And the net effect is that “they cancel each other out.”

“They’re going to fail not because there are two of them, but because each one is an independent effort,” he said. “When you go at it alone, the other side will always have veto power over what you do. It’s like mutually assured destruction.”

Staggering Forward

The struggle comes as the Caribbean island of 3.2 million people -- more than that of 20 U.S. states -- is still recovering from hurricanes, earthquakes and the global pandemic. It’s also crawling out of a historic bankruptcy aimed at reducing nearly $18 billion of debt, and reckoning with the turmoil created by the 2019 ousting of Governor Ricardo Rossello. The member of the New Progressive Party and registered Democrat was driven from office amid disclosures that he and aides cruelly mocked consituents.

The island has been a U.S. possession since 1898 when William McKinley’s administration seized the colony at the end of the Spanish-American War. Since then, La Isla del Encanto has progressively won greater autonomy, but is still at a disadvantage when it comes to federal funding, programs and representation.

Rival Puerto Rico Bills Dim Democratic Hopes of a 51st State

Although Puerto Ricans have been U.S. citizens since 1917, residents don’t have the right to vote for president and don’t have a say in Congress.

A change in the island’s territorial status could have dramatic financial consequences. Although both sides say their bills won’t affect continuing bankruptcy negotiations, a move toward autonomy might threaten the commonwealth’s heavy reliance on federal funding for everything from education to health to social security. And embracing statehood might undercut Puerto Rico’s niche as a tax haven for wealthy mainlanders.

This month, Florida Democratic Representative Darren Soto -- with the support of the island’s Republican non-voting member of Congress, Jenniffer Gonzalez and Democratic Governor Pedro Pierluisi -- introduced the “Puerto Rico Statehood Admission Act.” That bill would trigger a binding island-wide referendum on statehood. If that option won, the Biden administration could potentially be sewing a new star on the flag before the end of his first term.

Days later, Representative Nydia Velazquez, a Puerto Rican-born New York Democrat, introduced the “Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act.”

Rival Puerto Rico Bills Dim Democratic Hopes of a 51st State

That law creates a body elected by island residents that would attempt to settle the status issue by studying all the options. Whatever the “status convention” decided would have to be be ratified by a plebiscite.

Self-Determination

On Monday, Velazquez told supporters that her proposal is the only one that offers a true choice.

“Puerto Ricans are sick and tired of being played by politicians in D.C. and San Juan,” she said in a statement. “The collective political future of a people is not some trivial partisan matter and needs to be addressed in a serious and constructive way.”

One of her co-sponsors, New York Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, said a single-choice referendum like the one Pierluisi is pushing is tantamount to the island’s leadership putting its “thumb on the scale” for statehood.

There have been several attempts to untangle the Puerto Rico status knot, including three nonbinding referendums since 2012. In November, 53% of voters on the island said they favored statehood. They also narrowly elected a Pierluisi, an ardent statehood advocate, as governor.

Those votes and Gonzalez’s bill were giving statehood momentum, said George Laws Garcia, executive director of the Puerto Rico Statehood Council. Velazquez’s initiative slams on the brakes.

“You would have to be naive to think that her bill is not an active effort to oppose statehood,” Laws said, citing Velazquez’s track record of opposing statehood initiatives in Congress.

Island Elite

Gonzalez, who is one of Puerto Rico’s most popular politicians, said Velazquez’s plan to create a deliberative body is antidemocratic.

The “legislation looks to delegate Puerto Rico’s future to a select few, instead of allowing the majority to decide for themselves,” Gonzalez said in a statement. “There is nothing more colonial in nature than imposing other’s views over us.”

The chief Senate sponsor of the opposing Self-Determination Act, New Jersey Democrat Robert Menendez, said the status-deciding body “ensures that the people of Puerto Rico will have a robust, inclusive, and democratic process to consider the future of their political status.”

“When Puerto Rico decides its future, the people on the island deserve to fully understand all their options,” he said in a statement Friday.

Rival Puerto Rico Bills Dim Democratic Hopes of a 51st State

With the battle lines drawn, each side has enlisted supporters and dozens of community groups. But both bills will likely face headwinds. While Democrats are split on the bills, many Republicans are wary of the political implications of statehood. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has spoken repeatedly against Democratic efforts to make Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia states.

But Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, who is up for re-election next year in a state where many Puerto Ricans have resettled, has supported statehood.

“Our fellow American citizens in Puerto Rico have democratically expressed their support for becoming a state,” Rubio said in a March 2 statement. “I urge my Senate colleagues to keep an open mind and learn more about statehood before taking a firm position in opposition. I will continue to do my part to one day achieve the 60 votes needed in the Senate for admission.”

Reina-Perez, the analyst, said the status issue is so divisive and complicated that until everyone is on the same page, there’s little hope for a lasting resolution.

“This is a case of a death foretold,” he said of both bills. “There’s a lot of hype, a lot of posturing, a lot of theater and drama -- only for it to all die in the procedure.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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