House vote on Puerto Rican Statehood
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House Vote On Puerto Rico’s Future Divides Hispanic Lawmakers
By Corey Boles, Of DOW JONES NEWSWIRES
WASHINGTON -(Dow Jones)- Legislation that could set Puerto Rico on a path to statehood has divided Hispanic House lawmakers over whether it is the best way to determine the future of the territory’s relationship with the U.S.
Lawmakers are set to vote on the measure Thursday, which could lead to Puerto Ricans casting a ballot in a referendum about whether they want to change their century-plus territory status with the U.S.
According to the legislation, the island’s residents would first be asked to vote on whether they want to retain the status quo. If they opt for change, a second ballot would then be held to determine if they want to pursue statehood, independence or a loose association with the U.S.
If Puerto Ricans vote in favor of statehood, the U.S. could be expanded beyond 50 states for the first time since Hawaii joined the Union in 1959.
It would lead to a raft of questions that could result in significant changes about how many lawmakers sit in Congress, and how the federal government funds various programs including the highway trust fund, Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.
For Puerto Ricans, it would likely result in some paying federal income tax for the first time, and spark debate about whether the island would be able to continue having two official languages.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D., Md.) is a strong backer of the bill. The scheduled vote on Thursday comes just a week after Hoyer decided to cancel a vote on another bill that would have given the District of Columbia a voting member of the House of Representatives, a measure the number two House Democrat also supported.
Other proponents of the Puerto Rican bill caution that it wouldn’t lead directly to statehood, noting that Congress would still have to react to the outcome of the votes.
“Congress is not granting statehood here or even offering it, is simply consulting the people of Puerto Rico as to their views on status,” Rep. Pedro Pierluisi (D., P.R.) said.
Pierluisi is the sole House member representing the territory in Congress but, like other House members from overseas U.S. possessions, isn’t allowed to vote on legislation on the House floor.
Another supporter, Rep. Jose Serrano (D., N.Y.), who represents the Bronx but was born in Puerto Rico, said a vote on the matter is long overdue.
“In 112 years of our relationship, the Congress has never asked Puerto Ricans about how they feel about the relationship” with the U.S., Serrano said.
On the other side of the issue, two of the most prominent House Hispanic members–Reps. Nydia Velazquez (D., N.Y.) and Luis Gutierrez (D., Ill.)–are openly opposed to the measure and have said they will vote against it.
“It’s not truly a mechanism for self determination for the people of Puerto Rico,” Velazquez said. “The bill is struck in favor of statehood.”
It isn’t clear whether the island’s residents themselves favor statehood. Pierluisi said he believed roughly a half of the territory’s population favors becoming the 51st state, a large minority supports a looser association with the U.S., and a small percentage wants complete independence.
The measure has 181 co-sponsors in the House, a significant number that would usually indicate it is likely to pass easily in a vote.
Some congressional aides said that the division among senior Hispanic lawmakers could lead to a split in the vote of the 23 members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
At least one Republican lawmaker who had previously backed the measure has announced he will now vote against it.
“The biggest issue is if you look at the last two states that came into the Union, the effort to become a state in both of those states came from the people and not from Congress,” Rep. Doc Hastings (R., Wash.), said.
Hastings is the top Republican on the House panel that approved the bill and voted for it at the committee stage.
He said he also has concerns about the fiscal consequences of Puerto Rico becoming a state and over the language issue.
If the House does vote to approve the measure, it is likely that the Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee would hold a hearing on it, a Democratic aide to the panel said. This would be the first step in moving forward with the legislation in the Senate.
A Senate Democratic leadership aide said there had been no discussions yet as to whether the matter could come to the floor for debate and vote.
-By Corey Boles, Dow Jones Newswires; 202-862-6601; firstname.lastname@example.org