Bipartisan group unveils Puerto Rico status consensus

A negotiating group led by House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) on Thursday unveiled a bill that would begin the process of undoing Puerto Rico’s territorial status, widely seen as a colonialist vestige. 

The consensus bill brought together two opposing sides in the Puerto Rico status debate: those who advocate for and those who oppose the idea of statehood. 

If the bill is passed, Puerto Rican voters would go to the polls to choose statehood, independence, or independence followed by a compact of free association with the United States. 

The compromise is the first status proposal in history that does not include an option to extend the current territorial status. 

“Let me tell you what this bill is about. Does the United States want to be a colonial power? I hope the answer to that is ‘no.’ Emphatic no. That is not a political issue. That is a principle issue. That’s an issue of what our country is about. We believe in self determination,” said Hoyer at the bill’s presentation. 

The Puerto Rico Status Act is the result of months of negotiations led by Hoyer between Reps. Darren Soto (D-Fla.), Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Puerto Rico Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González-Colón (R). 

Soto and González-Colón are the House’s two most vocal defenders of statehood for the U.S. Caribbean territory, while Velázquez has long been a fierce opponent of the push for statehood, and has consistently been an advocate for Puerto Rican issues in Congress. 

That split reflects the core of Puerto Rico’s politics, which have orbited around the issue of status — and more specifically statehood — since the island’s current political system was put in place in the 1950s. 

While the fight over status historically included implicit or explicit support from some actors to maintain the status quo, that position was effectively erased off the political map by a series of crises and Supreme Court decisions. 

A 2017 resolution by the Supreme Court determined unequivocally that Puerto Rico is a territory, subject to the jurisdiction of Congress and without control over its sovereignty. The island’s 2016 bankruptcy spurred Congress to impose a federal oversight board to control the island’s finances. 

Red tape and politicization of relief after hurricanes Irma and María further emphasized the territorial status’s deficiencies. 

Puerto Rican advocates in Congress presented the two competing bills — Soto and González-Colón for statehood, Velázquez and Ocasio-Cortez for a self-determination convention — but neither bill got the necessary traction to eclipse the other. 

Later, Hoyer and House Natural Resources Committee Chair Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) stepped in to take a shot at a consensus option. 

Grijalva had previously told The Hill that the status debate was casting a shadow over other Puerto Rico priorities. 

The negotiations took place in secrecy over three months, with outside groups on either side often pressuring to get their desired results. 

“After months, months, of sincere discussions and negotiations we can proudly announce that we have reached an agreement on a path forward to solve once and for all the island’s political status,” said González-Colón. 

Under the deal, Grijalva will visit the island with Natural Resources Committee staff to hold open hearings on the bill text — a first, since Puerto Ricans have no voting representation in Congress — and a binding referendum on the three options will be set for Nov. 5, 2023. 

If no single option wins a majority of voters in the 2023 referendum, a runoff will be held between the two remaining options early in 2024. 

If the bill is passed and statehood wins, an admissions process would kick off. The two other options are full independence, or independence followed by a compact of free association, where a sovereign Puerto Rico would agree to share some government functions with the United States, each as an independent nation. 

The bill as currently written details what the transition process would look like if any of the three options were put in place, including chapters on how to deal with Puerto Ricans’ current U.S. citizenship. 

Under the statehood option, Puerto Ricans would continue to be U.S. citizens indefinitely, while the two independence options would maintain U.S. citizenship for existing citizens, but citizens of an independent Puerto Rico born after independence would eventually be subject to U.S. immigration laws. 

Under free association as described in the bill, the children of Puerto Ricans who are also U.S. citizens would continue to receive U.S. citizenship as long as the compact between the two nations lasts. 

“The consensus clearly defines Puerto Rico’s non-territorial status options: statehood, independence and free association,” said Velázquez. 

“It is the first time Congress recognizes free association as a status option where the American citizenship of Puerto Ricans will be respected. Importantly, provisions on rights to U.S. citizenship are included in both independence and free association options,” she added. 

The bill’s presentation saw Velázquez and González-Colón, once bitter political rivals, sharing a stage to present a consensus bill. 

While both lawmakers remarked on the unlikelihood of their alliance, they both made clear which status option they prefer under the bill: Velázquez is partial to independence with free association, while González-Colón favors statehood. 

The bill faces an uncertain battle to get to President Biden’s desk, and the current Congress will be working against the clock to pass it before a new Congress takes over, potentially with new majorities. 

Still, Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Pierluisi (D) said he is confident the bill will make it through the House, with González-Colón adding bipartisan support for the effort. 

“This bill in all likelihood will gain bipartisan support. I expect many more Democrats supporting the bill than Republicans, but it’ll get support from both sides of the aisle. So I would anticipate that it will be a … clear cut majority vote for the bill when it hits the floor. That’s my expectation in the House,” said Pierluisi. 

Tags Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez AOC Latino Americans Nydia Velazquez Nydia Velázquez Puerto Rico Puerto Rico statehood Raul Grijalva Steny Hoyer

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