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Senate Democrats make the case for Puerto Rico self-determination

‘These things … seem impossible until they’re not,’ says Sen. Martin Heinrich

Sen. Martin Heinrich is leading a new push in the Senate to change the status of Puerto Rico. Above, he describes his bill Wednesday, with Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Pierluisi on the left and Sen. Brian Schatz on the right.
Sen. Martin Heinrich is leading a new push in the Senate to change the status of Puerto Rico. Above, he describes his bill Wednesday, with Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Pierluisi on the left and Sen. Brian Schatz on the right. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

It took six decades and many attempts before Congress passed a statehood bill and admitted New Mexico to the union in 1912.

That is cause for optimism, said Sen. Martin Heinrich, who right now is thinking about the future of Puerto Rico. The Caribbean island of a little more than 3 million people has been a territory of the U.S. since 1917, despite repeated pushes for autonomy. 

“I think these things … seem impossible until they’re not. And that was certainly our experience in New Mexico statehood,” the Democrat said at a news conference Wednesday. 

Heinrich has introduced a Senate bill that would force a plebiscite allowing Puerto Ricans to vote on three status options: statehood, independence or sovereignty in free association with the U.S. 

The mood in the room on Wednesday was buoyant. Joined by Puerto Rican elected officials and military veterans, Heinrich said things could be different this time. Supporters held signs reading “Let Puerto Ricans Decide Their Future,” and applause broke out whenever a speaker mentioned statehood, or when a senator stumbled through a line in Spanish.

The measure has 20 original co-sponsors, more than previous efforts in the chamber, according to Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Pierluisi. But the reality may be more grim. There’s no clear path forward for the legislation in a Senate only narrowly held by Democrats.

“The status quo for Puerto Rico is unjust and undemocratic, and we need a path to change that,” said Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii. Other senators who appeared Wednesday were Ron Wyden of Oregon and Richard Blumenthal and Christopher S. Murphy of Connecticut, all Democrats.

A nearly identical bill advanced out of the House last year with bipartisan support but never got a vote in the Senate. While Arizona Democratic Rep. Raul M. Grijalva reintroduced it this year, it has yet to see committee action and has attracted just 12 Republicans co-sponsors — three of whom can’t vote on the floor because they represent U.S. territories.

The Senate bill has a similar problem. All of its original co-sponsors are Democrats, and Mississippi Republican Sen. Roger Wicker has introduced a competing proposal that would force a plebiscite, but with a fourth option for Puerto Rico to maintain its commonwealth status. That status grants citizenship to those born on the island, but they have no electoral college votes and no voting representatives in Congress.

“The people of Puerto Rico deserve a voice in shaping their political destiny without being forced into a false choice between statehood or independence,” Wicker said in a September statement announcing the legislation. “Pending legislative proposals from my colleagues do not acknowledge the fact that many Puerto Ricans prefer to maintain their current status and want the freedom to decide on their own terms.”

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

Pierluisi and Puerto Rico’s Republican resident commissioner, Jenniffer González-Colón, both oppose maintaining the island’s current status.

“This bill … is responding to the moral imperative of putting an end to the century-old colonial status of Puerto Rico and providing a permanent, nonterritorial solution,” Pierluisi said at Wednesday’s event. 

But even within the Democratic Party there are obstacles. West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin III has said previously he believes Puerto Rico’s fate should be decided by a national referendum of all U.S. citizens. 

Asked about those obstacles, Heinrich said he and other co-sponsors would follow the lead of House lawmakers, who have slowly added Republican co-sponsors to their bill.

“We’re going to continue to talk to our Republican colleagues and really everyone in the U.S. Senate until we’re able to get this across the finish line,” Heinrich said.

He also warned against viewing the legislation through a partisan lens, citing a long-held Republican concern that statehood for Puerto Rico could lead to a permanent Democratic majority in the Senate.

“One of the things we’ve learned from previous debates about statehood, in particular, is that oftentimes when states come in and everyone assumes they’re always going to be Republican or they’re always going to be Democrat, then the voters prove themselves to be independent,” Heinrich said.

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