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Puerto Rico Status Bills Melded by House Panel

Tuesday’s markup of a bill to determine Puerto Rico’s status left two sides of a heated debate each claiming victory.

The bill that passed the House Natural Resources Committee combined two ideas — one developed by those who want statehood for Puerto Rico and the other by those in favor of commonwealth status. It provides for a vote on whether Puerto Rico should keep its territorial status or pursue a “constitutionally viable, permanent non-territorial status,” while also keeping open the possibility for a constitutional convention to mull over the options.

“I think it’s a baby-step bill, but it’s a step in the right direction,” said Jeffrey Farrow, a co-chairman of former President Bill Clinton’s Interagency Group on Puerto Rico. “At least it’s a reasonable step to take.”

The original bill was drafted by Rep. José Serrano (D-N.Y.) and Puerto Rico Resident Commissioner Luis Fortuño (R), who is a strong statehood proponent. But during Tuesday’s markup, the House Natural Resources Committee added language from an opposing bill sponsored by Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.) — which is supported by pro-commonwealth Gov. Aníbal Acevedo Vilá (D). The requirement for a vote comes straight out of Serrano and Fortuño’s bill, while the convention is plucked from Velázquez’s language.

Eduardo Bhatia Gautier, Acevedo’s representative in Washington, D.C., called the amended bill a “step in the right direction.” The governor and his advisers would look it over carefully before deciding whether to support it, he said. But he still declared the day a win for the governor; the compromise, he said, was a “big loss” to statehood supporters.

“They had to get rid of the rigged processes,” said Bhatia, the executive director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration. “Everything they were arguing had to be dropped in order to make sure it had some oxygen.”

The compromise is a rare occurrence in the long-running and complex debate over whether Puerto Rico should be a commonwealth, a state or even an independent nation. For decades, the three sides have argued, introducing dozens of bills to Congress and sanctioning several referendums in Puerto Rico. But the issue is complicated by a split almost down the middle among the Puerto Rican electorate; the Popular Democratic Party supports a form of commonwealth status while the New Progressive Party advocates statehood.

The amended bill passed by the Natural Resources Committee gives some hope of reconciliation. Serrano and Fortuño said they hoped it would bring together both sides by dropping the original two-step voting process. The process was vehemently opposed by Acevedo, who has said it unfairly pits independence and commonwealth supporters against statehood proponents.

That two-step process meant two referendums. The first vote gave two choices: current territory status or a new non-territorial status. If a majority of voters chose the latter, a second vote would give two more choices: one supporting statehood and another supporting independence or a “free association” with the United States. But the amended bill drops that second vote and recognizes Puerto Rico’s right to call a constitutional convention, something Acevedo has been pushing for.

Farrow said that while he wishes the issue could be solved with Fortuño’s two-step vote, he applauds the compromise.

“I think it is a real effort at compromise. You take half of Serrano’s bill and then take the heart of Velázquez’s bill and glue them together,” he said. “It’s hard for me to think of a compromise that is as stark as this one is.”

Some committee members, however, expressed doubt that the bill would solve the status question, calling it incomplete.

“We’ve already held four referendums,” said American Samoa Del. Eni Faleomavaega (D). “Let’s find an option where there will be a final position.”

But because of the compromise, Fortuño said he doesn’t see any reason the governor should object now that the bills are combined.

“We have bent over backward to try and squash any concerns,” he said after Tuesday’s markup.

Since the compromise adds the convention — the “nucleus” of Velázquez’s bill — both sides should come together to get it passed, Serrano said.

“This is a real option,” he said. “So I don’t know what else the opposition can complain about.”

Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), chairman of the Natural Resources Committee, acknowledged that the issue remains controversial and that the House Democratic leadership has expressed concerns over bringing such a hotly contested the bill to the floor. But he pledged to continue the process of getting it to the House floor.

“My expectation is that it would pass,” he said. “I think what we’re doing here is putting it in the hands of the people of Puerto Rico.”

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