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Bipartisan group restarts push for Puerto Rico statehood vote

Lawmakers say they have more time to move the legislation to the floor

Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., introduced the legislation.
Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., introduced the legislation. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

House lawmakers are reigniting an effort to give Puerto Ricans the right to decide their status, including the possibility of statehood, after a similar attempt fell short at the end of last year.

Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva, D-Ariz., introduced legislation Thursday that, if approved, would force a plebiscite allowing Puerto Ricans to vote on three non-territorial status options: Independence, sovereignty in free association with the U.S., or statehood.

“America means choice. America means freedom. America means liberty. Therefore, the people of Puerto Rico ought to have choice,” Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., said at a news conference outside the Capitol Thursday. 

Hoyer was majority leader last Congress when a nearly identical measure passed the House 233-191, with 16 Republicans voting in support. The Biden administration also issued a statement of administration policy last year in support of the measure. But it never got a vote in the Senate.

“Our government has always honored and protected civil rights and ensured that every citizen has a voice and a vote,” Puerto Rican Gov. Pedro R. Pierluisi said at the news conference. “That is what Puerto Ricans ask from Congress. That is what they deserve as American citizens. To be heard. To be counted. To have a seat at the table.”

There is some bipartisan support for the new legislation. Republican Reps. Don Bacon of Nebraska and María Elvira Salazar of Florida were present at the news conference alongside Democratic Reps. Nydia M. Velázquez of New York and Darren Soto of Florida and Res. Cmmsr. Jenniffer González-Colón, R-Puerto Rico.

Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ritchie Torres, both New York Democrats, are also cosponsors.

Republicans opposing the measure last Congress cited complications with transferring military bases back to the U.S. should the island become sovereign or independent, and the potential burden on its taxpayers to pay back relief funds given to the island during natural disasters. They also took issue with the lack of a fiscal impact score from the Congressional Budget Office.

Despite those roadblocks, Grijalva and others expressed optimism. 

Last Congress an early draft of the legislation wasn’t introduced until May 2022 after a lengthy period of negotiations and soliciting feedback from residents of Puerto Rico, leaving a narrow window for passage. The early introduction of the measure this year will give lawmakers more time to move the bill through committee and to the floor, Grijalva and others said.

“Filing these bills early on this Congress will allow all of us not just to have a hearing, but to actually see the bill and get something done in the Senate at the same time,” González-Colón said. “So I think the most important thing is we’re doing this early in this Congress.”

But any action will require buy-in from House Committee on Natural Resources Chair Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., and Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. It will also require Republican support in the Senate to overcome a filibuster.

Pierluisi said he and Gonzalez-Colon were meeting with Westerman later Thursday to discuss the bill and address any concerns he may have. Grijalva said offices in the Senate had expressed interest in introducing a companion bill there.

“Now it’s a new day, so let’s move it forward,” Pierluisi said.

The U.S. acquired Puerto Rico from Spain in 1898 and granted it territory status in 1917, which means those born on the island are U.S. citizens but do not have a voting representative in Congress.

Puerto Rico has held a series of popular votes on the island’s relationship to the U.S., including non-binding plebiscites in 2012, 2017 and 2020. In the 2020 plebiscite, 52.3 percent of voters answered affirmatively when asked whether Puerto Rico should be immediately admitted to the union as a state.

The bill introduced Thursday would set a binding plebiscite vote for November 2025, with a runoff set for March 2026 if no majority is reached. It also ensures the implementation of whatever option chosen by Puerto Rican voters.

“What we are offering here is a democratic, inclusive, fair process,” Velázquez said. “The people of Puerto Rico must decide their future and Congress has the responsibility and power to facilitate that process.”

Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.

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