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Sen. Murkowski could move the Puerto Rico statehood bill forward

Sen. Murkowski could move the Puerto Rico statehood bill forward
© Greg Nash

Last year, while most Americans were focusing on the contentious presidential election, there was another critical election that could have an outsized influence on American politics for years to come.

The vote on the island asked Puerto Ricans whether they supported statehood for the island — the third such status vote in less than 10 years. Once again, the majority of Puerto Rican voters, 52.34 percent, supported statehood. It is now incumbent upon Congress to take action. 

In addition to Puerto Rico’s representative Jenniffer Gonzalez-ColonJenniffer Aydin Gonzalez ColonWhere to, Puerto Rico? Sen. Murkowski could move the Puerto Rico statehood bill forward Puerto Rico officials hopeful of progress on statehood MORE in the House of Representatives and others, Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Chauvin conviction puts renewed focus on police reform GOP sees immigration as path to regain power Harris casts tiebreaking vote to advance Biden nominee MORE (R-Alaska), the former chairwoman and current senior member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, has an opportunity to play a crucial role.

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The Energy and Natural Resources Committee has jurisdiction over issues surrounding Puerto Rico’s status. The committee would be the first step for relevant legislation in the Senate. This is one direct tie for Sen. Murkowski. A less direct tie is that the senator was born in Alaska at a time when it was still a territory, which may help her understand this issue better than most.

Yes, it was not that long ago that Alaska was a territory of the United States and it is easy to forget the arduous process it took before Alaska finally achieved statehood.  

Alaska became a state in 1959, but the first time legislation was first introduced in Congress was in 1916. Alaskans passed a referendum 30 years later, after World War II, but were at the will of a Congress that was more concerned with the political implications than with giving Alaskans the full rights that come with statehood. After the 1946 referendum, multiple bills were introduced in Congress to make Alaska a state, but the bills were rejected — in one instance by just a one-vote margin in the Senate.  

Despite the setbacks, activists and pro-statehood officials in Alaska continued their efforts, finally succeeding when a Senate coalition tied the future of Hawaii and Alaska together, in addition to growing public pressure on President Eisenhower and then-House Speaker Sam Rayburn (D-Texas). 

Before becoming a state, Alaska’s economy was suffering, but the situation vastly improved after its full admission to the Union. The production of goods and services increased, job creation grew an incredible 26 percent, and wages rose for workers. Increased wages meant that Alaskans could purchase more goods and services from the rest of the country, bringing the economic benefits of Alaskan statehood to the rest of the country.

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Republicans often express political concerns about Puerto Rico statehood, but the evidence shows that the fear is misplaced. Puerto Rican voters regularly have elected leaders who identify nationally as Republicans. 

Stronger support for statehood has helped put Republicans over the top with voters on the mainland who care deeply about their already established American identity. The two Republican senators from Florida support statehood and a large number of Republican representatives from across the country have co-sponsored bills to give Puerto Rico statehood. 

Even partisans might be surprised that the Republican Party long has supported making Puerto Rico America’s 51st state, including in the GOP platform

Puerto Rico’s residents — who are American citizens by birth — also deserve the rights, privileges and economic benefits that come with statehood. 

Puerto Ricans serve alongside mainland residents in battle, yet they cannot vote for their commander in chief. They have no representation in the Senate, and their representative in the House cannot vote on bills on the House floor. And yet, Puerto Ricans are required to live under the laws that Congress passes.   

In 2017, Puerto Rico Resident Commissioner Gonzalez-Colon introduced legislation in the House to make Puerto Rico a state. Gonzalez-Colon recently helped introduce similar legislation in the current Congress, and companion legislation was introduced in the Senate. This is where Sen. Murkowski’s leadership could prove vital. 

After the 2012 plebiscite regarding Puerto Rico’s status, Murkowski acknowledged it was clear that Puerto Ricans were not happy about their current status as a territory. That sentiment was echoed again in the November 2020 vote, showing support for statehood.  

Sen. Murkowski has the opportunity to support the committee holding a hearing on this issue, and in due time move the Puerto Rico statehood bill to the Senate for a floor vote. Hopefully, our elected officials will finally heed the voice of the Puerto Rican people, as they did with Alaskans years ago.

Mario H. Lopez is president of the Hispanic Leadership Fund, a nonpartisan public policy advocacy organization that advances liberty, opportunity, and prosperity for all. Follow him on Twitter @MarioHLopez.