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 SotoDemocrats demand FCC act over leak of phone location data Overnight Health Care — Presented by National Taxpayers Union — Buttigieg targets Warren, Sanders on health care ahead of debate | Judge overturns ObamaCare transgender protections | Poll sees support drop for 'Medicare for All' Hispanic voters push campaigns to address gun violence 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 YoungThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Dems release first transcripts from impeachment probe witnesses GOP lawmaker head-butts MoveOn camera Hundreds turn out for London's first transgender equality march MORE (R-Alaska), Jamie RaskinJamin (Jamie) Ben RaskinDemocrats gear up for high-stakes Judiciary hearing Lawmakers to watch during Wednesday's impeachment hearing Pelosi faces tough choices on impeachment managers MORE (D-Md.) and Ruben GallegoRuben GallegoICE emerges as stumbling block in government funding talks Lawmakers press for ICE reforms after fake school report Donald Trump Jr. writes about Trump family 'sacrifices' during trip to Arlington National Cemetery: book 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 John TrumpLawmakers prep ahead of impeachment hearing Democrats gear up for high-stakes Judiciary hearing Warren says she made almost M from legal work over past three decades 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 SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerOvernight Health Care — Presented by Johnson & Johnson — Democrats call on Supreme Court to block Louisiana abortion law | Michigan governor seeks to pause Medicaid work requirements | New front in fight over Medicaid block grants House, Senate Democrats call on Supreme Court to block Louisiana abortion law Why a second Trump term and a Democratic Congress could be a nightmare scenario for the GOP 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) MenendezForeign Relations Democrat calls on Iran to release other American prisoners GOP senator blocks Armenian genocide resolution The job no GOP senator wants: 'I'd rather have a root canal' 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 BishopWalden retirement adds to GOP election woes Overnight Energy: Automakers group sides with Trump in emissions lawsuit | Latest on California wildfires | Walden won't seek reelection | Park Service scraps plan to charge protesters for security Oregon GOP Rep. Greg Walden won't seek reelection 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.