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House to Vote on Puerto Rico’s Status

Updated: April 28, 11:20 a.m.

The House is set to take action this week on an issue that Puerto Rico’s politicians have spent years debating: the island’s political status.

Now a self-governing territory, Puerto Rico has an electorate that has long been split on whether to become a state or whether to pursue more political autonomy as a “new commonwealth.” A small subset of Puerto Ricans even continue to argue for full independence.

Puerto Rico’s government has spent millions lobbying Congress on the issue, changing its official preference with each new administration. But for the first time in decades, Puerto Rico’s governor, Congressional Delegate and Legislature are all on the same page. And it has paid off: The House is set to vote on a bill that would sanction the first-ever Congressional plebiscite — or survey — of the island’s residents on which status they prefer.

“What is at stake here — what this bill will clarify — is what are the real options,” said Puerto Rico Gov. Luis Fortuño (R), a statehood supporter who tried to get a similar bill passed in 2008 when he was the island’s resident commissioner — or Delegate — to Congress. “It will clarify what the options are in a nonbinding manner.”

The last time the House passed a similar bill was 1998. But the Senate never took up the legislation, instead passing a supportive resolution. Puerto Rico held a plebiscite anyway — without the backing of Congress. Since about half the voters chose a “none of the above” option, the unclear results have been debated since.

But officials are hoping the bill has enough momentum this time around to gain significant support, helping to pave its way in the Senate.

Not only does it have the support of Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), but Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) — long silent on the issue — “supports the Majority Leader’s decision to bring the bill to the floor so that the House can work its will,” according to spokesman Drew Hammill.

Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi (D), who represents the island’s residents in Congress, said he was optimistic of its chances, pointing to the bill’s 180 co-sponsors, 58 of whom are Republican.

If the bill passes by a wide margin, “I know that then the bill will get a life of its own and its chances will be much better in the Senate,” he said. “Now I’m fighting for every vote because I know that if the margin is very slight then I might be getting only a resolution from the Senate rather than a bill.”

The Puerto Rico Democracy Act sets up a two-step plebiscite. The first survey asks voters whether Puerto Rico should keep its political status or have a different political status. If the majority choose the latter, a second survey will be held with three choices: independence, “sovereignty in association with the United States” or statehood.

Not all of Puerto Rico’s officials or their advocates in Congress support the bill. The island’s Popular Democratic Party has long opposed the bill, instead pushing for Congress to sanction a constitutional convention. The party’s officials argue that the plebiscite will skew the vote toward statehood, partly by not including an option for a “new commonwealth.” Members of the island’s New Progressive Party, such as Fortuño, argue that the options in the plebiscite are the only legal possibilities, as determined by several presidential reports.

Only half of the members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus signed on as co-sponsors, and Chairwoman Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.) has long opposed the bill. A spokesman said the Congresswoman “strongly opposes” the bill. Last year, Velázquez sent a letter to Pelosi calling Pierluisi’s plebiscite bill the product of a “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.”

The bill has also drawn the ire of some conservative Republicans, some of whom held a press conference Tuesday to push for Puerto Rico to adopt English as its first language. In a “Dear Colleague” letter last month, Rep. Steve King (Iowa) wrote that it was “extremely troubling” that the House Natural Resources Committee would not amend the bill to require that a vote for statehood include a provision making English the island’s official language.

“While including such a requirement in a Puerto Rican statehood vote may seem trivial to some, we believe that insisting on Puerto Rico’s adoption of English as its official language should serve as a minimum requirement for consideration of its inclusion in our Union,” he wrote. “Allowing Puerto Rico to become a non-English speaking state would set a harmful precedent, endanger our nation’s unity, undermine the important role that English plays in the assimilation process, and increase demands for taxpayer-funded translation and interpreter services.”

But such considerations are likely premature. If the House passes the bill, which is likely to hit the floor Thursday, it will still face an uphill battle in the Senate, where supporters have only just begun to reach out.

Pierluisi said he and Fortuño have discussed the issue with Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M), who heads the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which has jurisdiction over territorial issues. But Pierluisi said he was now focusing on drumming up votes in the House, with him approaching Democratic colleagues and Fortuño focusing on his fellow Republicans.

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