With the clock ticking, Puerto Rico status bill faces uncertain prospects

FILE – The Puerto Rican flag flies in front of Puerto Rico’s Capitol as in San Juan, Puerto Rico, July 29, 2015. A group of Democratic congress members, including the House majority leader, on Thursday, May 19, 2022, proposed a binding plebiscite to decide whether Puerto Rico should become a state or gain some sort of independence. (AP Photo/Ricardo Arduengo, File)

CORRECTION: Power 4 Puerto Rico has never endorsed or opposed a specific option for Puerto Rico’s sovereign status. An earlier version of this story included incorrect information.

A bill to allow Puerto Ricans an open vote on their status is up in the air, as competing political forces from San Juan to Washington wrestle over a dying deal that months ago was hailed as a generational breakthrough.

The Puerto Rico Status Act cleared the House Natural Resources Committee in July, raising hopes among supporters that it would quickly receive a House vote and go to the Senate.

The bill has sat on the back burner for months, and now its proponents face a choice between a likely symbolic House floor vote and a full reset as Republicans take over that chamber.

At the bill’s core is a deal between Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.) and Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González-Colón (R-P.R.) to hold a binding referendum for Puerto Ricans to choose between statehood, independence, or independence followed by free association with the United States. 

That deal — a historical first between people who represent opposite ends of the Puerto Rican political spectrum — was brokered by outgoing Majority Leader Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), for whom the bill is a legacy item.

But as the last chance for the bill to see a House floor vote approaches, new pressure points are breaking out and putting the vote at risk.

For one, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), who played a role in negotiations in Velázquez’s corner, has irked González by proposing amendments perceived as poison pills by many of the bill’s supporters.

That’s led to recriminations from González against Ocasio-Cortez.

“We arrived at agreements, and Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez doesn’t respect or validate or validate those agreements, after having been there for two press conferences — I think that’s an intention to water down the project so nothing is passed,” González-Colón told The Hill last week.

“It’s sad for a person who lives in New York, who doesn’t live in Puerto Rico, keeps in suspense 3.2 million U.S. citizens who live on the island, in a permanent colony,” she added.

Ocasio-Cortez tweeted in response that if González “has something real to say she can tell me in person.”

Still, the bill’s key proponents are pushing for a vote despite the infighting.

“We finally have real momentum to bring this bill to the floor. Yes, of course we should still pass it out of the House during this Congress. It’s critical to move this bill as far as we can. Americans in Puerto Rico deserve nothing less,” said Rep. Darren Soto (D-Fla.), a statehood supporter who backed González in negotiations.

And many statehood proponents outside of Congress are eager to see the bill pass, if only to keep the status conversation alive.

“There’s an opportunity for the broader American public to be aware of this as an issue that needs to be addressed, and so that people in Puerto Rico as well as stateside Puerto Rican voters, can know that Congress is really interested in doing something about this,” said George Laws García, executive director of the Puerto Rico Statehood Council.

But some in the statehood movement are getting cold feet, arguing that the bill’s core deal could lead voters astray.

The bill allows for a self-executing, binding referendum — if the bill became law the referendum would go ahead as a matter of federal law — that would give Puerto Ricans the opportunity to choose between statehood, independence and independence followed by free association with the United States.

Under the bill, most Puerto Ricans would keep their U.S. citizenship under any of the choices, a provision that many detractors say might not be enforceable.

The bill also lacks detail on a number of issues, like the language of business in Puerto Rican courts and schools if statehood were to win.

“I think it’s a missed opportunity, not because it’s a bad bill, it just has incomplete information in the process that led to it. Again, so rushed, no hearings, no complete discussion on amendments, really has brought us here. So maybe that’s a recognition that they just rushed it through in a bad way,” said Federico de Jesús, the chief lobbyist for Power 4 Puerto Rico.

But for some statehood proponents, offering U.S. citizenship with the two forms of independence was a mistake.

“The practical effect of that is you can have many young people, particularly followers of Bad Bunny, who might believe that utopia. It’s not that free association or independence will win, it’s that it will take votes away from statehood,” said Andrés Córdova, a law professor at Inter American University of Puerto Rico.

Rapper Bad Bunny has come out as a top voice against statehood, essentially arguing that joining the United States in full would harm Puerto Rico’s national identity.

And two prominent supporters of statehood who requested anonymity to speak frankly told The Hill the political timing no longer made sense for passage of the bill.

Those statehooders said a bill passed by an outgoing Democratic House majority was more likely to alienate Republicans than keep the issue alive in Washington, all the while agreeing with Córdova that the bill’s concessions unnecessarily weaken the argument for statehood.

Still, the bill’s proponents want to see a House floor vote, regardless of its slim prospects in the Senate, among other things to prove that the United States is moving in the right direction to respect the right to self determination for its colonized citizens and nationals.

“You know, there’s slim prospects in the Senate, always. We passed a bill, as you recall some years ago, at my instance when I was majority leader the first time. That bill passed the House, it did not get consideration in the Senate. I think the bill has greater prospects in the Senate today. But at bottom is the principle that Americans and our country support, and that is the self-determination of peoples,” Hoyer told reporters Tuesday.

“It’s never the wrong time to do the right thing. I want to do the right thing,” added Hoyer.

Tags Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Darren Soto Jenniffer Gonzalez-Colon Latinos Nydia Velazquez Puerto Rico Steny Hoyer

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