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Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Puerto Rico To Be Or Not To Become A State? Again

Puerto Rican Lawmakers Split On Statehood Vote

A vote on the future of Puerto Rico has created a rift in the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, with two of the most prominent Hispanic members of Congress lining up against a House bill while the Puerto Rico delegate backs the legislation.

Rep. Nydia Velazquez, a New York Democrat and one of the most prominent Puerto Ricans in Congress, along with Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), have been outspoken in their opposition to the legislation, which would mandate a vote on the island on whether residents want to change their governing status as a commonwealth.

Yet Democrat Pedro Pierluisi, the Puerto Rican Delegate to Congress, campaigned on giving the island’s residents this vote on their future relationship with the United States.

He has Bi-partisan support in Congress for the Puerto Rican Democracy Act, and his Republican governor is on board. He got more than 1 million votes in his election in 2008. Opponents, he said, are just “rehashing” an election he already won.

His message to Velazquez and Gutierrez?

“Elections have consequences,” he told POLITICO on Monday.

The Puerto Rico bill is an arcane piece of legislation in a year of drastic overhaul in Washington, and it is flying under the radar while financial regulatory reform consumes most of the attention span of Congress. Democrats lost an initial vote on financial reform on Monday.

But even though it’s not exactly driving the national conversation, the Puerto Rico issue is not without its own dose of drama.

For Pierluisi, a supporter of Puerto Rican statehood, it’s about letting people have a vote on their future, he said. Never mind that Puerto Rican statehood is a serious long shot — he’s got a campaign pledge to keep.

“I promised I would do this,” he said.

The bill calls for a two-step vote in Puerto Rico: The citizens of the island would vote on whether they should keep their political status or change it.

Should citizens vote to change it, they would then have to choose among statehood, independence or a third option, which would set up sovereignty between the U.S. and Puerto Rico — similar to America’s relationship to the Marshall Islands and Micronesia. The vote is not binding, and should the nation choose to alter its relationship with the U.S., it would still be subject to further congressional legislation.

Velazquez and Gutierrez, along with outside opposition, think the legislation would create a vote in which the cards were stacked in favor of statehood. The Popular Democratic Party of Puerto Rico, which supports sovereignty, also opposes it. The PDP lost the 2008 elections for governor and delegate to Congress quite handily.

With the first round limited to a “yes” or “no” vote on the current status, opponents believe the statehood and independence factions will band together under the “no” option. Then, in the second round, Puerto Ricans will not be able to maintain their commonwealth status, which does have support.

Further, Gutierrez, a supporter of independence for the island, is upset with his leadership for the “nature of how the bill is moving through Congress,” an aide said. Gutierrez was surprised Democratic leaders put the bill on the floor and said the process “is not making him terribly happy,” the aide added.

Despite the opposition, with 181 co-sponsors — including a slew of Republicans — the bill is quite likely to pass when it comes to the floor this week. A recent whip count showed overwhelming support. Pierluisi said supporters will negotiate how the Senate will handle the bill should it pass the House.

Unlike previous pieces of legislation dealing with Puerto Rican political status, Pierluisi, the second-ranking official, introduced the bill.

GOP Gov. Luis Fortuno — also a former House delegate — supports it, and the governor is whipping Republican members of the House to vote for the bill. He has placed calls to GOP lawmakers, has allies ginning up support and is even jetting to D.C. for the vote. Pierluisi is briefing Hill aides Wednesday on the bill to drum up additional support.

Opponents plan to offer amendments calling for a constitutional convention — something Pierluisi is not in favor of and thinks could drown out the voice of the Puerto Rican people.

There’s also the concern that if the legislation passes both the Senate and the House and statehood is chosen by citizens and then rejected by Congress, Puerto Rican elected officials will institute what is called the Tennessee plan: They’ll “self-declare” statehood by sending shadow senators, along with six House members, to Washington without congressional approval. That’s a long shot but still a concern among some opponents of the legislation.

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Sources: Huffington Post, Politico, Wikipedia, Youtube, Google Maps

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