By Erik Wasson
The giant spending bill signed by President Obama on Friday includes language that could lead to a vote in Puerto Rico on becoming the 51st state.
The $1 trillion omnibus spending bill includes $2.5 million for Puerto Rico to conduct a vote on its political status. The exact language that will be placed on the ballot will be fought over in the months ahead.
Rep. José Serrano (D), an ally of Pierluisi’s, who represents a New York district with a large Puerto Rican population, led the fight to have the provision included in the spending bill.
“This is an historic moment,” Serrano told The Hill on Tuesday. “For the first time in 116 years, both houses of Congress have asked Puerto Rico to go ahead and vote on its status.”
To be sure, Puerto Rico faces a number of hurdles on its road to statehood.
Even if a majority of Puerto Rico’s 3.7 million residents vote for statehood, Congress would then have to approve making it the 51st state. Given the Democratic lean of the island, Republicans are unlikely to favor the idea.
Still, backers of statehood argue the language is a significant victory.
They say, if a clear majority votes in favor of statehood, it would allow them to start a huge campaign to get Congress to vote to officially grant Puerto Rico admission to the union.
Winning the language is also a victory because Puerto Rico Gov. Alejandro Garcia Padilla, elected in 2012, and his Popular Democratic Party (PDP) do not favor statehood.
The PDP has advocated a constitutional assembly of officials rather than a popular vote as the next step on Puerto Rico’s status and has talked about an “enhanced” commonwealth status that could see Puerto Rico conduct more of its foreign affairs.
The Puerto Rican legislature, which is controlled by the PDP, must take the next steps, and a source with the State Elections Commission said the ruling party might petition the Justice Department to count a constitutional assembly instead of a popular referendum as meeting the terms of the spending bill.
Language in the House report accompanying the Commerce, Science and Justice appropriations bill, which was rolled into the omnibus, requires Attorney General Eric Holder to approve ballot language before a vote is held.
Serrano argues the language of the bill favors either statehood, independence or a free association like the U.S. now has with Palau. “The language says ‘resolve Puerto Rico’s future political status,’ which means it cannot remain as it is,” he said.
Serrano also argues the House report language, which requires the vote to comport with the U.S. Constitution, goes against enhanced commonwealth status, since territories are not allowed to conduct foreign policy.
The congressman said his role going forward would be to prod the government of Puerto Rico to take advantage of the funding and hold a genuine popular vote.
Puerto Rico held a plebiscite in 2012, but its results have been in dispute.
The ballot had two parts — in the first, a majority favored discontinuing territorial status. In the second part, statehood got the most votes, but barely more than what territorial status had won in the first part.
Pierluisi has called the result a “resounding” victory for statehood, but Jose Hernández Mayoral, the PDP’s secretary of federal affairs, argued that far overstates the case in an essay in The Hill last week.
The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which has jurisdiction over Puerto Rico and other territories, examined the vote in an August hearing. Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) concluded the outcome favored statehood, while ranking member Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said it was inconclusive.
Wyden and Murkowski last month penned a letter to Pierluisi urging the $2.5 million be used to fund a ballot initiative that excludes enhanced commonwealth status, which they both called a “non-viable” option that should not be considered.
In contrast, Garcia Padilla has argued both independence and statehood would be terrible for Puerto Rico’s economy. As it stands, the island’s resident are U.S. citizens, but they do not have to pay income taxes on local earnings. Puerto Rican bonds are tax free as well.
Serrano acknowledged in an interview that there is no deadline for Garcia Padilla and his ally Eduardo Bhatia, the Puerto Rican Senate president, to act in order to receive the new funding. The money could remain available for years, he said.