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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 SotoHouse Democrats introduce bill to invest 0 billion in STEM research and education Radiation elevated at fracking sites, researchers find Hopes for DC, Puerto Rico statehood rise 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 Republicans vote for bill to decriminalize marijuana House passes sweeping reform bill to decriminalize marijuana OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Trump administration proceeds with rollback of bird protections despite objections | Trump banking proposal on fossil fuels sparks backlash from libertarians | EU 2019 greenhouse gas emissions down 24 percent MORE (R-Alaska), Jamie RaskinJamin (Jamie) Ben RaskinDemocrats debate fate of Trump probes if Biden wins Congress must repeal tax breaks for the wealthy passed in CARES Act COVID-19 and the problem of presidential succession MORE (D-Md.) and Ruben GallegoRuben GallegoCompromise defense bill offers rebuke of Trump's Germany drawdown Gallego tapped to run Hispanic Caucus's campaign arm Congress: Support the ARC Act to prevent amputations 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 TrumpAppeals court OKs White House diverting military funding to border wall construction Pentagon: Tentative meeting between spy agencies, Biden transition set for early next week Conservative policy director calls Section 230 repeal an 'existential threat' for tech 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 SchumerBipartisan governors call on Congress to pass coronavirus relief package Pelosi, Schumer endorse 8 billion plan as basis for stimulus talks Funding bill hits snag as shutdown deadline looms 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) MenendezSenate to vote next week on blocking Trump's UAE arms sale Judge whose son was killed by gunman: 'Federal judiciary is under attack' Emergency housing assistance for older adults needed now 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 BishopOVERNIGHT 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 Bruce Westerman tapped as top Republican on House Natural Resources Committee Republicans in campaign mode for top spots on House environmental committees 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.