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Statehood bill could make Puerto Rico a state before 2020

A bipartisan group of representatives joined with Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló (D) Thursday to present a bill that would admit the territory as a state within 90 days of passage.

The bill's author, Rep. Darren SotoDarren Michael SotoFauci says school should be open 'full blast' five days a week in the fall Biden calls for path to citizenship for dreamers, farmworkers Harris moves forward with new Central America strategy MORE (D-Fla.), said the plan's simplicity makes it different from all previous attempts at Puerto Rico statehood.

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"This bill is different in that it's just a straight admissions bill. All other bills before it were either calling for an additional plebiscite or had multiple conditions, committees and task forces that the status would have to jump through hoops on," said Soto, the first Florida representative of Puerto Rican origin.

"So this is the first bill that simply admits Puerto Rico. The first of its kind ever," added Soto.

Puerto Rico's current claim to statehood is based on two plebiscites, or voter referendums, in 2012 and 2017, where a large majority of active voters chose statehood over independence or remaining as a territory of the United States.

Neither plebiscite was binding, and an opposition boycott diminished the 2017 vote's credibility.

Still, the new bill's sponsors dismissed the idea of going through the plebiscite process once more, as that argument has been used in the past to stall momentum on statehood.

Joining Rosselló and Soto were Del. Jenniffer González-Colón (R-Puerto Rico); Reps. Don YoungDonald (Don) Edwin YoungFive takeaways on the House's return to budget earmarks Does Biden have an ocean policy? McCarthy and Biden haven't spoken since election MORE (R-Alaska), Jamie RaskinJamin (Jamie) Ben RaskinWatchdog finds Architect of the Capitol was sidelined from security planning ahead of Jan. 6 Six House Democrats ask Garland to review case of lawyer placed under house arrest over Chevron suit Democrats seek to keep spotlight on Capitol siege MORE (D-Md.) and Ruben GallegoRuben GallegoHispanic Democrats slam four Republicans over Jan. 6 vote in new ads Democrats want Arizona to reject mapping firm's application to redraw districts GOP lawmaker barricaded himself in bathroom with sword during Capitol riot MORE (D-Ariz.); and Puerto Rico Senate Majority Leader Carmelo Ríos.

Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens by birth, but U.S. citizens who live in Puerto Rico — whether they were born there or not — cannot vote for president except in local party primaries and receive lesser Social Security benefits and tax credits compared to residents of U.S. states.

Politically, the rights of U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico are even more limited than those of U.S. citizens abroad, as expatriate citizens are allowed to vote remotely for federal office candidates.

"We in this country have said 'separate but equal' is inherently unequal. And yet, we allow this to happen to 3.2 million people every day, that their rights are determined by their zip code or by their area code," said Gallego, the chairman of the Natural Resources Insular and Alaska Native Affairs Subcommittee, which oversees the territories.

"A Puerto Rican can jump on a plane and land in Florida and have 100 percent equal rights, or stay on the island and have diminished rights. In what world can we allow that to happen?" added Gallego.

The simplified statehood bill proposed by Soto has to go through the Natural Resources Committee before consideration by the full House.

Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the chairman of that committee, has in the past been cool to the idea of Puerto Rican statehood.

"Chairman Grijalva has promised to hear this bill. He's neutral on it, but he understands that this is a thing that needs to happen. And having spoken to a lot of Natural Resources members, today there's a lot of interest in vetting out this issue," said Soto.

Grijalva told The Hill he'll schedule a statehood hearing, but he wants to prioritize oversight of hurricane recovery efforts and hearings on the island's power company, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, and financial stabilization law, the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA).

"First of all, we're going to deal with the two hearings we have right now, PREPA and PROMESA, and a recovery hearing and then I'll talk to the sponsors of the legislation about their request for a hearing. That's step number one, and then we'll see what we come up with," said Grijalva.

Grijalva added that the bill's proponents moved quickly, leaving little time to react.

"There was limited prior notification about when they were going to drop the bill. Soto told me yesterday afternoon, so nobody has had a chance to react about timing, hearing, impact, nothing," he said.

If the bill passed the House and Senate and were signed by President TrumpDonald TrumpFranklin Graham says Trump comeback would 'be a very tough thing to do' Man suspected in wife's disappearance accused of casting her ballot for Trump Stefanik: Cheney is 'looking backwards' MORE — an extremely unlikely scenario — Puerto Rico would become the 51st U.S. state 90 days later.

The 90-day period, according to Soto and Rosselló, is a negotiation starting point.

"We'll allow the Natural Resources Committee, through debate and committee work, to debate and determine perhaps a different transition period, but we wanted to start at the strongest position," said Soto.

Still, the bill could either surf a wave of Democratic discontent with Trump's treatment of disaster recovery funds for territories, or face headwinds of controversy that force Democrats to choose between equal rights for Puerto Ricans and other legislative priorities.

"At this point I'm not going to speculate if it passes or not [or] when it goes to the floor, I'm not prepared to do that. And the fact remains that we have no support for this in the White House and maybe we have to talk to leadership about how much energy we want to expend on this," said Grijalva.

Democrats are currently embroiled in a fight with Trump over statements he allegedly made this week to Republican senators, saying he didn't want to send additional disaster recovery funds to Puerto Rico.

Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerBiden 'encouraged' by meeting with congressional leaders on infrastructure Republicans welcome the chance to work with Democrats on a bipartisan infrastructure bill Cheney sideshow distracts from important battle over Democrats' partisan voting bill MORE (D-N.Y.) Wednesday and Thursday raised the issue, threatening to pull Democrats out of a bipartisan disaster recovery bill led by Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.).

In a floor speech Thursday, Sen. Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezTensions mount among Democrats over US-Israel policy Senate Democrats ramp up push to limit Biden's war powers Democrats reintroduce legislation to ban 'ghost guns' MORE (D-N.J.) took a swipe at Trump and Senate Republicans, saying what's "so disappointing is that none of my colleagues even dared to check the President on this issue."

"It’s almost as if he views himself as the real victim here — not the 3,000 American mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters who perished in Hurricane Maria’s wake," said Menendez.

And Rosselló jumped into the fray Thursday, warning anyone who would "bully" Puerto Rico that "if the bully gets close, we'll punch him in the mouth."

"What that means is we need to confront the bullying that's happening in Puerto Rico, we need to confront the inequities and the inequality that we're dealing with," Rosselló told The Hill.

"Efforts like what we're doing over here today, to get equal treatment, to get information out, to educate on what's going on in Puerto Rico, that's the way you fight bullying," he added.

The bill's presentation amid other Puerto Rico-related controversies could help its chances of maintaining a high profile.

Previous bills on statehood have generally fizzled out in committee. González-Colón won the support of then-Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob BishopRobert (Rob) William BishopGOP's Westerman looks to take on Democrats on climate change House Republicans who didn't sign onto the Texas lawsuit OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Westerman tapped as top Republican on House Natural Resources Committee | McMorris Rodgers wins race for top GOP spot on Energy and Commerce | EPA joins conservative social network Parler MORE (R-Utah) for a bill last year that failed to make it out of the panel.

While Soto's statehood bill seems to have ample committee support, many observers see its formal passage as far-fetched, particularly after the clashes over Puerto Rico with the White House and Senate GOP.

"What I'm being very careful [with] is not to raise expectations that aren't real. If we want to make a statement about that, that's one thing, but if we want to get it done, that's completely another thing," said Grijalva.