Puerto Rico statehood supporters pin hopes on House action

Puerto Rico statehood supporters pin hopes on House action

The head of Puerto Rico's Statehood Commission has high hopes for action on statehood legislation in the U.S. House now that Democrats are in the majority.

Charles Rodríguez, a member of the commission and leader of the Puerto Rico Democratic Party, told The Hill that proponents will soon introduce a measure in Congress to advance statehood.

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The bill would first need to make it through the House Natural Resources Committee, led by Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.).

"Grijalva is the co-author of the measure for D.C. statehood," said Rodríguez. "If you read that piece of legislation, everything it says there, the reasons for D.C. to become a state fit Puerto Rico perfectly."

The committee declined to comment on Rodríguez's remarks. Grijalva hasn't taken a side on this particular issue, though in the past he has said it's up to the people of Puerto Rico to decide.

Some panel members say it’s high time for Congress to take action.

"No matter what, the situation with Puerto Rico is not acceptable and it is incumbent upon us in the committee to bring something to the committee,” said Rep. Ruben GallegoRuben Gallego2020 Democrats raise alarm about China's intellectual property theft Harris picks up endorsement from influential lawmaker as support slips Democratic lawmaker: Russia, China benefitting from continued US troop presence in Afghanistan MORE (D-Ariz.), chairman of the Natural Resources subcommittee that deals with insular affairs. “Let us openly debate it, and we can move forward, whatever that looks like.”

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A statehood measure last year failed to make it through the Natural Resources Committee, even though it had support from Chairman Rob BishopRobert (Rob) William BishopHere are the lawmakers who aren't seeking reelection in 2020 Overnight Energy: House moves to block Trump drilling | House GOP rolls out proposal to counter offshore drilling ban | calls mount for NOAA probe House GOP rolls out energy proposal to counter Democrats offshore drilling ban MORE (R-Utah).

Since claiming the gavel, Grijalva has elevated Puerto Rico from the insular affairs panel to full committee status.

Gallego said he agrees with that move, calling Puerto Rico's well-being a "top priority" for him.

"I think when it comes to this issue it's not really a progressive issue versus not progressive — I think it has to do with whether you believe Puerto Rico is better off in a statehood situation versus not,” he said. “But either way, the committee is where we should have that open debate.”

Proponents of statehood control all four major elected positions in Puerto Rico: the governorship, resident commissioner, Senate president and Speaker of the House.

Those officials were voted into office in 2016, in an election that served as a precursor to the 2017 status referendum that resulted in 97 percent of participants voting for statehood.

However, the referendum was marred by low turnout stemming from an opposition boycott, and the U.S. Department of Justice did not sanction the vote. That means $2.5 million in federal funds that was appropriated to cover the costs of the vote are still available.

"What we are requesting is that that appropriation that has already been approved is used for a yes/no vote, as was done in Alaska and Hawaii," said Rodríguez, who added that statehood proponents are confident they could easily win another referendum vote.

The Statehood Commission — a shadow congressional delegation comprised of three Democrats, three Republicans and an independent — has the support of Sens. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) and Martin HeinrichMartin Trevor HeinrichO'Rourke gun confiscation talk alarms Democrats Senate panel advances Trump's nominees to lead Air Force, Army Overnight Defense: Dems grill Trump Army, Air Force picks | House chair subpoenas Trump Afghanistan negotiator | Trump officials release military aid to Ukraine MORE (D-N.M.), as well as Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González-Colón (R-Puerto Rico) and Rep. Darren SotoDarren Michael SotoTwo years after Maria, Puerto Rico awaits disaster funds House passes temporary immigration protections for Venezuelans House fails to pass temporary immigration protections for Venezuelans MORE (D-Fla.), the first Floridian of Puerto Rican origin to be elected to the House, Rodríguez said.

González and Soto are both members of the Natural Resources Committee, and González is the top Republican on the insular affairs subcommittee.

The Republican Party platform explicitly endorses statehood — given a valid referendum in Puerto Rico — though it’s questionable as to whether statehood legislation would make it through the GOP-controlled Senate.

The Democratic platform is not as clear about the issue of Puerto Rico statehood.

Puerto Rico's left — which loosely commingles with Democratic progressives — has traditionally endorsed the status quo or supported the possibility of an independent Puerto Rico.

But in the last few years, even former supporters of the free associated state — the official description of Puerto Rico's relation to the United States — have characterized the island's status as colonialism.

A Supreme Court decision in 2016 erased the distinction between a free associated state and a simple territory of the United States, and the island's financial crisis led to Congress passing a law that appointed a federal supervisory board to oversee the territory's finances.

A year later, Hurricane Maria devastated the island, and the aftermath drew national headlines for months.

During that time the statehood question stagnated. But with Democrats back in the majority, there’s renewed hope for movement.

Rodríguez said that what statehood supporters want to see now is quick action by the Natural Resources Committee.

"I think Puerto Ricans are tired of happy talk, we want action. And the way to exercise action is to approve a Puerto Rico accession act,” he said. “We'll celebrate before or after a yes-no referendum on statehood. I have no fear of that."