Supporters of changing Puerto Rico’s territorial status are turning to the Senate to keep a compromise bill alive as rapidly shifting political dynamics threaten to bury the proposal for a plebiscite on the issue.
Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) introduced the Puerto Rico Status Act in the upper chamber Wednesday, leading 21 Democratic co-sponsors on the legislation that would have Puerto Ricans choose among statehood, independence or independence with free association with the United States.
The bill, a historical compromise that brought together opposing sides on the status issue, passed the House in the last Congress, marking the most significant forward motion to amend territorial status in Puerto Rico’s colonial history.
But the push to allow Puerto Ricans to choose their fate threatens to lose momentum to other issues in the national spotlight as the country barrels toward a contentious 2024 presidential election.
“It’s been more than 100 years since Puerto Rican residents became U.S. citizens. And we all know that in that time, as you can see right in front of us, well over 300,000 Puerto Ricans have served in our nation’s military,” Heinrich said at a press conference attended by Puerto Rican veterans.
“I think we should all agree that Americans living in Puerto Rico deserve an overdue, permanent and democratic answer on their political status,” he added.
Puerto Rico became a U.S. territory after the 1898 Spanish-American War, and in 1917 the island’s residents were granted U.S. citizenship by the Jones-Shafroth Act, just five years after Arizona and New Mexico were granted statehood.
“I have always taken a strong interest in this issue, and in part it’s because of my own home state’s long and winding path to statehood. It took us 50 New Mexico statehood bills to get there — many, many decades before we finally became the 47th state of the United States,” Heinrich said.
But Puerto Rico’s trajectory has not been like that of the incorporated territories that ultimately opted for statehood.
In 1959, though Alaska and Hawaii had much smaller populations than Puerto Rico — and despite Hawaii being three times as far from the U.S. mainland — they were admitted into the union, while Puerto Rico devised a sui generis territorial governance scheme.
Because of Puerto Rico’s larger population and Spanish colonial cultural heritage, its path to statehood was never a given, but it needed a larger measure of self-government than other territories.
The acrimonious fight between proponents of statehood and supporters of the existing territorial arrangement became the center of Puerto Rican politics for decades, while the independence movement played a smaller but significant role.
The territory’s loss of fiscal autonomy in 2016 and Hurricane María in 2017 changed the equation by laying bare the deficiencies of territorial status.
That’s at the crux of the urgency to change Puerto Rico’s status — proponents say the system of government is continuously failing the population’s needs.
“For so long, the United States federal government has done things about Puerto Rico without allowing the people of Puerto Rico to determine their own future,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), one of the co-sponsors of the bill.
But Puerto Rico’s status faces stiff competition for the spotlight amid wars in Israel and Ukraine, a looming federal government shutdown and the unpredictable 2024 election cycle.
The bill’s sponsors are aware it faces long odds, but they are wary of losing the framework that brought supporters of statehood, independence and free association together in opposition to continued territorial status.
“The most significant sign that the Senate is going to pay attention to this is going to be if we can get a hearing in the Energy and Natural Resources Committee either at the full committee level or at the subcommittee level,” said George Laws García, executive director of the Puerto Rico Statehood Council.
“That’s going to be key, because that presents an opportunity to further inform other members of Congress about the legislation and what’s happening and the need to actually move this forward through the legislative process.”
That goal actually seems a step down from the bill’s 2022 success, when a deal was struck between Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.) and Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González-Colón (R-P.R.) in tense negotiations hosted by then-House Majority Leader Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.).
After that deal materialized, the bill was passed by the House shortly before the congressional term ended, leaving no time for the Senate to consider it.
This year’s introduction in the Senate, the bill’s proponents say, builds on that early success.
“There’s a lot of members who finally got familiarized with the Puerto Rico Status Act — the compromise, what it means — in the House. We need that same process to happen in the Senate, so when the moment is right, we’ll be able to start much earlier and we’ll be able to have better success,” said Rep. Darren Soto (D-Fla.), a staunch supporter of statehood who took part in the original negotiations.
“This is definitely going to be a multi-term effort, but we’ve gotten it further than ever and proved a lot of skeptics wrong.”
Though the bill would technically put the three status options on equal footing for an island-wide vote, it’s the supporters of statehood who are more aggressively promoting it.
That’s both because some proponents of other options — or simply opponents of statehood — have expressed distrust that the plebiscite would be fair, and because statehooders are confident their position would win.
“I think your leadership here is demonstrating that the people of Puerto Rico are looking for a final solution on the status issue. And once Congress has approved a bill that will allow us to answer that question, I have no doubt that the people of Puerto Rico are going to choose statehood, as they did in the last three plebiscites,” González-Colón told the bill’s Senate co-sponsors.
But the idea of statehood for Puerto Rico faces opposition stateside, as well as on the island.
Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chair Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who Thursday announced he would not run for reelection in 2024, has said he would like to see a plebiscite in the United States on Puerto Rico’s status before passing any bill that could obligate Congress to accept the Caribbean island into the union.
That position rankled the bill’s advocates, with Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Pierluisi (D) dismissing its validity.
“Actually, I am not afraid of polling this issue in the U.S. at large. Every time this is polled, Americans, a majority of Americans in the U.S., support statehood for Puerto Rico,” Pierluisi said.
“But that’s not the process. Our constitution simply requires a majority vote in support of the admission of the territory in each house of the Congress for statehood to happen.”