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Puerto Rico officials hopeful of progress on statehood
Top officials in Puerto Rico say they believe they can make progress toward statehood, after voters on the island approved a statehood referendum and now that Democrats control Congress and the White House.
In interviews, Gov. Pedro Pierluisi (D) and Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González-Colón (R) said they believed they can build bipartisan support for a statehood measure in the House this year, though both acknowledged the uphill fight such a bill would face in the Senate.
"It will have a substantial majority of support with votes from both sides of the aisle. Primarily Democrats, but there will be a significant number of Republicans supporting the bill. The time has come for Puerto Rico to become a state," Pierluisi said in an interview. "The ball will go to the Senate's court, where it will be a tougher fight."
Pierluisi said he had spoken with members of the Biden administration about advocating for statehood. On the campaign trail, Biden himself said he would help Puerto Rico enroll in Medicaid programs, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and the Earned Income Tax Credit, programs that are not open to the American citizens living on the island.
A White House spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
The question of status has been the fulcrum of Puerto Rican politics since the 1950s. But a 2016 Supreme Court decision effectively rendering the notion of commonwealth status moot added new urgency to the debate.
That decision shattered the coalition who opposed statehood into camps that today range from independence to a compact of free association, a deal similar to those struck by South Pacific nations that were formerly under federal control. That disruption has effectively meant that statehood is now the most popular status option.
González is working with Reps. Darren Soto (D-Fla.) and Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), two members of the House Natural Resources Committee that has jurisdiction over Puerto Rico, to push for a hearing.
"You've got Republicans and Democrats supporting Puerto Rico to become a state, so yes, I truly believe that this is the time to make that happen," she said. "It is time for Congress to hear us out and to allow the people from the island to get their American citizenship fulfilled and empowered."
Committee chairman Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) has yet to schedule a hearing, though a spokesman hinted that one is coming shortly.
"Chair Grijalva knows that resolving political status is a high priority for the people of Puerto Rico, and he plans to conduct a hearing on ways to resolve that status early in this Congress," the spokesman, Adam Sarvana, said in an email.
The holdup is likely to come in the Senate, where Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has compared statehood to socialism - though the national Republican platform endorses statehood.
McConnell's spokesman said he had no update on the minority leader's position.
But Republicans are not the only ones standing in the way. Reps. Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), who hold two New York City districts with substantial Puerto Rican populations, have introduced legislation that could make the island an independent nation.
"It is understandable that many of our friends in the Democratic Party have eyed making Puerto Rico a state as the answer" to Puerto Rico's financial crises and the U.S. Navy testing bombs on the island of Vieques, Velázquez and Ocasio-Cortez wrote in a recent op-ed. "But this approach, often undertaken with the best of intentions, is misguided."
González pointed to the statehood referendum, which passed in November with 52 percent of the vote, to refute a push for independence.
"They believe in independence, but that's not what the people of Puerto Rico voted for," González said in an interview. "They need to respect the voters of the island, and the voters of the island selected statehood. Why try to take that away from them?"
The referendum alone is not sufficient to guarantee Puerto Rico will become a state. The Constitution gives Congress the authority to admit states into the union, after both voters and representatives in Washington approve the state constitution.
"If Congress does what it has done in the past with territories, Congress will come up with a bill, an admission bill, that will propose statehood or offer statehood and then ask the people of Puerto Rico to ratify it, to vote once again to ensure that the people want it," Pierluisi said. "You're going to get an overwhelming majority in support of statehood because it's going to be a totally different environment. They're going to be voting on Congress's offer on statehood."
If a statehood resolution made it through the House, there are at least a few Republican senators who are on the record supporting statehood. González pointed to Sens. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who represent thousands of Puerto Ricans who moved from the island to their state.
"The Florida delegation is always important for Puerto Rico," González said.