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Puerto Rico Debate Hits Congress

The never-ending debate over Puerto Rico’s political status is again knocking on Congress’ door, but the island’s politicians are betting that a host of new factors will mean that this time they won’t be turned away.

Their hopes center on a bill that would sanction a plebiscite ­— or survey — on whether Puerto Ricans want to keep the island’s current status. If a majority vote for a new status, a second plebiscite would give three options: statehood, independence or “sovereignty in association with the United States.—

Similar legislation has never made it far in the past, thanks to a sharply divided electorate in Puerto Rico and the unwillingness of many lawmakers to get caught in the middle. Most of the island’s residents belong to one of two camps: those who want Puerto Rico to become a state and those who want it to be a “new commonwealth— with more political autonomy.

The plebiscite bill is the brainchild of statehood supporters, raising the suspicion of commonwealthers and thus hindering its progress through Congress in the past. But Puerto Rico Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi (D) argues that this year’s version of the bill has more support than ever, with 182 sponsors, 58 of whom are Republicans. In 2007, a similar bill garnered a total of 132 sponsors.

“This time around, the difference is we’re ready. Now the only matter remaining is to take it to the floor,— Pierluisi said in a recent interview. “I am confident that it will get a very substantial majority when it gets to the floor and that it will get substantial votes from both sides of the aisle.—

The bill passed the House Natural Resources Committee in July with a vote of 30-8, and the committee released its report earlier this month. But whether it gets to the House floor is still uncertain; a similar bill never made it that far in the 110th Congress, despite the committee’s support.

Like last time, the bill has the support of Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). But Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has kept publicly neutral on the issue. In an e-mail last week, spokesman Drew Hammill said only that Pelosi “supports the rights of the Puerto Rican people to decide for themselves the status of Puerto Rico.—

“To that end,— he said, “the Democratic leadership will continue to gather input from all the stakeholders involved as we continue to discuss this legislation.—

Those stakeholders almost certainly include Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.), a native of Puerto Rico who is chairwoman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and supports a constitutional convention to hash out all of Puerto Rico’s options. In 2007, she introduced a bill outlining that proposal — which was backed by then-Gov. Aníbal Acevedo Vilá (D), a supporter of the “new commonwealth— — but she declined to offer such a bill this Congress.

Instead, she sent a letter to Pelosi decrying Pierluisi’s bill as the product of a “non-transparent— and “dismissive— process.

“This approach must not be sanctioned,— she wrote. “It would be particularly unfortunate for such a non-transparent approach to be applied to an issue that is highly controversial and so central to the lives of all Puerto Ricans.—

Velázquez has also argued that the plebiscite does not allow Puerto Ricans to determine their own future. Instead, she supports the constitutional convention, where participants would come up with a proposal, allow residents to vote on it and then send it on to Congress.

“It is important that Puerto Rico status legislation is based on consensus and true to the traditions of democracy,— she said in a statement last week. “The people of Puerto Rico deserve a transparent process for self determination, and H.R. 2499 fails to accomplish that.—

But Velázquez’s opposition might not be enough to prevent the bill’s progress this time around. Unlike last Congress, the island’s politicians are solidly behind the plebiscite. Gov. Luis Fortuño (R) backed a similar bill in 2007 when he was Resident Commissioner, and a majority of Puerto Rico’s legislators want the bill to pass.

Jeffrey Farrow, a co-chairman of former President Bill Clinton’s Interagency Group on Puerto Rico, said that such a united front helps the bill’s chances “an enormous amount.—

“The fact that the previous governor was against the bill in the last two Congresses was an impediment because of deference to a governor, because he had developed ties with Members as Resident Commissioner, and because he used government resources to pay for extensive lobbying against it,— Farrow said.

This year’s bill also is slightly different from those in the past, adding an option that is meant to appease those who support a “free association— — or something like it — between Puerto Rico and the United States. The parameters of the association are decided by the two entities in the relationship; for example, the U.S. provides certain aid and social services to Palau in return for full military control, among other things. The U.S. is also in free association with Micronesia and the Marshall Islands.

Pierluisi’s bill is somewhat vague on what such a relationship would mean to Puerto Rico and titles it as “sovereignty in association with the United States.— It describes that sovereignty as “a political association between sovereign nations that will not be subject to the Territorial Clause of the United States Constitution.—

In an interview, Pierluisi said he was trying to “avoid unfamiliar language, trying to avoid labeling, trying to be all-inclusive,— referring to some groups’ mistrust of the “free association— title.

“It’s a way of grasping the claims of all those who do not want Puerto Rico to be either a state or independent or in the current territory status,— he said.

He hopes the bill will pass the House before the end of the year, paving the way for an effort in the Senate. If the bill makes it that far, Pierluisi might need the backing of the White House to make progress — and so far, President Barack Obama has not weighed in on the issue. Velázquez has already highlighted this fact, asking in her written testimony that the Natural Resources Committee “afford the President the opportunity to act and seek the expertise of this committee as well as other stakeholders.—

But Pierluisi said he is confident the bill’s momentum in the House will jump-start its progress in the Senate. He also emphasized the nonbinding nature of the bill — the plebiscite, he said, is only a way for Congress to “check the temperature— of the island.

“This is a pretty straightforward process,— he said. “I don’t rule out that down the road, once we get a House vote on this, that I may approach the White House. I have simply so far kept them abreast of the bill and my efforts.—

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