A bipartisan group reintroduced a bill for a three-option referendum on Puerto Rico’s political status as a state or an independent nation Thursday, testing the consensus plan’s viability in a new political environment.
A nearly identical bill cleared the then-Democratic-led House in December, leaving little time for the Senate to consider the bill as the 117th Congress gave way to a divided Capitol this year.
“One of the biggest challenges last time, it took us so long to get an agreement — almost a year, right?” said Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González-Colón (R-P.R.).
“So finally we got an agreement. It was the end of the last Congress,” she added. “So now filing this bill early in this Congress would allow all of us to work not just to have a hearing, but to actually see the bill and get something done at the Senate at the same time.”
The Puerto Rico Status Act is essentially a deal struck between González-Colón, an ardent supporter of statehood, and Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.) a supporter of self-determination with deep roots in the pro-commonwealth political movement in Puerto Rico.
Under the bill as currently written, Puerto Ricans would go to the polls in 2025 to choose between statehood, independence, and independence followed by a compact of free association with the United States. In the event no choice wins an outright majority of voters, a runoff would be held between the top two.
The González-Colón and Velázquez agreement is significant because it does not include the option for Puerto Rico to remain a U.S. territory, a status that many have decried as colonialist.
While the bill was hailed as a paradigm-breaking model to advance a standoff that’s engulfed Puerto Rican politics since at least the 1950s, it’s been written off as unrealistic in the current political climate.
House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.) panned it on the House floor in December.
“It’s bad policy. I don’t see how anybody can read this bill and think there are not problems with it, [that] there is not a lack of logic. There’s incoherence in the text of the bill, and it’s taking us to a position where we would make bad decisions,” Westerman said.
While he said he had issues with the substance of the legislation, his criticism was mainly directed at its timing, which didn’t allow for an amendment process or regular consideration by the Natural Resources Committee, which oversees the territory.
For some of the measure’s supporters, that’s a window of opportunity.
Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the top Democrat on the panel, said “step number one” is to approach Westerman to ask for a hearing.
“Which I will do,” said Grijalva, who, along with Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), sponsored the negotiations between González-Colón and Velázquez.
“Ask for a hearing and move from there, regardless of what their position might be on it or not, I think it merits a hearing. It did the last time; it’s significant, it’s important.”
The legislation’s proponents hope that by filing it just over 100 days into the current Congress, it will have time to go through regular order, regardless of opposition from key lawmakers such as Westerman.
The Hill has reached out to Westerman for further comment.
Even with ample legislative time ahead of it, the bill faces political headwinds.
For one, Puerto Rican Gov. Pedro Pierluisi (D) is up for reelection next year and could face a primary challenge within the pro-statehood New Progressive Party (PNP), of which González-Colón is also a member.
And the presidential election is already sucking the air out of other issues, even though it’s more than 18 months away.
Although the bill has bipartisan support — in addition to González-Colón, Reps. María Elvira Salazar (R-Fla.) and Don Bacon (R-Neb.) attended its unveiling Thursday — the idea of Puerto Rico statehood is more closely tied to Democrats.
“The impression I have is [Republicans think] that supporting statehood means there will automatically be two Democratic senators and four Democratic representatives,” said Pierluisi.
“I am the first who, as a Democrat, would tell them that in all likelihood that will not be the case, that we will have members from both parties.”
Though Puerto Rico’s sole congressional seat was occupied by Democrats from the end of World War II until the end of the 20th century, two of the four resident commissioners elected in the 21st century have been Democrats, including Pierluisi, and two have been Republicans, including González-Colón.
Pierluisi said the gubernatorial election should not interfere with the bill’s progress.
For one, the governor said the 2024 election will differ from the 2020 one, where voters largely punished the two major parties, his PNP and the Popular Democratic Party, giving rise to smaller political movements and parties.
Though voters spread their choices, more than 52 percent of voters chose statehood in a nonbinding referendum on the 2020 ballot.
“The last elections were unusual, they were unique, and I’m sure that scenario will not repeat itself,” Pierluisi said.
Pierluisi and the PNP, a party whose membership includes both Republicans and Democrats at the federal level, are betting Puerto Rico’s economic headwinds and the prospects for statehood will give them a boost among the electorate.
“What we will see in this election is a strengthened New Progressive Party with a substantial majority vote,” predicted the governor.