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Puerto Rico Bills on Tap in Hearing

Members of Puerto Rico’s political elite are scheduled to be on Capitol Hill today at a hearing designed to determine how the island will decide its future relationship with the United States.

But the one witness who might set the tone for the entire debate will have traveled from just across town.

C. Kevin Marshall, the co-chairman of President Bush’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Political Status, is set to testify as the first witness before the House Natural Resources subcommittee on insular affairs. Marshall’s appearance will be a rare event, the first time that any member of the Bush administration has appeared at a Congressional hearing to give input on the president’s views on the current options for the island.

“He was one of the main driving forces in putting the task force together, so he knows the issue very well,” said Jose Fuentes, a former attorney general of Puerto Rico. “And I’m sure he’ll be very helpful to the committee in understanding the administration’s position.”

In total, four panels and 13 witnesses are scheduled to appear to discuss two bills designed to let Puerto Ricans pick whether the island should keep its current territorial status, become a full state or declare independence.

The first bill, called the Puerto Rico Democracy Act of 2007, would involve a two-step process. First, Puerto Ricans would vote to decide if they want to keep the status quo. If they vote for a change, they will then pick whether to become a state or a sovereign nation.

The bill was developed from recommendations put forth by the presidential task force.

The second proposal, called the Puerto Rico Self Determination Act of 2007, would put the process into the hands of delegates at a constitutional convention, who would then decide between statehood, independence or commonwealth status.

Those delegates would then present their proposal to Puerto Rican voters, who would decide whether to ratify it. Congress would then need to approve it, and if Congress modifies the proposal, Puerto Rican voters would have to approve those changes.

That bill, sponsored by Democratic Reps. Nydia Velázquez (N.Y.) and Luis Gutierrez (Ill.), has the backing of Puerto Rico Gov. Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, who supports commonwealth.

Advocates argue it is the most democratic way of determining the island’s future, and say the other bill — sponsored by Resident Commissioner Luis Fortuño (R) and Rep. José Serrano (D-N.Y.) — is unfair because it basically pits supporters of a commonwealth against those who favor independence and statehood.

“It is not only that it is undemocratic, and it is unfair,” said Eduardo Bhatia, executive director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration, which represents the island in Washington, D.C. “It absolutely makes no sense.”

About 49 percent of Puerto Ricans favor commonwealth, Bhatia said, compared with 46 percent who advocate statehood and 5 percent who want independence.

Thus, a two-part vote would put the No. 2 and No. 3 favored options against No. 1, despite the fact the bottom two are exact opposites, he said.

Bhatia added that the motive for the two-step bill comes from a 1993 vote on the island in which Puerto Ricans decided to maintain commonwealth status.

“Statehood didn’t win,” Bhatia said. “The great lesson in 1993 is that statehood would never be requested by the people of Puerto Rico so long as commonwealth is on the ballot.”

Others argue, however, that commonwealth status is not a constitutionally valid option and change in some form is needed.

“It is a real problem for 4 million people [who are] U.S. citizens,” said Jeffrey Farrow, a co-chairman of former President Bill Clinton’s Interagency Group on Puerto Rico. “It is of overriding importance, and hasn’t been resolved because of confusion about what the options are.”

The hearing today — the second held this Congressional session on the issue — certainly will present all those options. Acevedo Vilá will testify, as will Kenneth McClintock, the vocal statehood-advocate who serves as head of the island’s Senate.

Fernando Martín, the executive president of the Puerto Rican Independence Party, will appear as well, joining an array of politicians and other political analysts.

And supporters of free association, a fourth option not even included in any of the bills, also will be on hand. That method would allow the island to function in a status similar to territories such as Guam and the Virgin Islands.

“What the chair is doing is making sure that every viewpoint is presented,” Farrow said. “The process, I think, will be fair, because everybody’s had a full opportunity to speak their minds.”

Added Fuentes: “It’s going to be a very wide net that they have cast, and I think that’s a very good thing.”

That said, observers of the issue said the two-step bill is the most likely option to be brought up for a markup, which could happen by the summer. If Marshall testifies that the administration is for the bill at the hearing today, the legislation is likely to get a boost.

“I think what you are going to find [today] is 90 percent of the witnesses are on the same side,” Fuentes said.

Bhatia said today’s hearing is important because it could be one of the only venues for commonwealth supporters to get their message across. He argued that whether commonwealth is constitutional remains up in the air, especially since the Supreme Court never has taken up the issue.

“These are very difficult issues that for some reason, have not been addressed yet,” Bhatia said.

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