Congress reopens discussion on Puerto Rico's status
By Tamara Lytle | Washington Bureau
Copyright by The Orlando Sentinel
Posted March 22, 2007, 7:59 PM EDT
Congress reopened the heated debate Thursday over Puerto Rico's political status, beginning hearings that could lead to action in the House this year.
People on various sides of the dispute over whether the island should be a separate nation, a state or a new type of commonwealth started off agreeing on a few key points.
One is that mainlanders of Puerto Rican descent should be allowed to vote if the three options reach a referendum. In Orlando, that would include qualified voters among the 200,000 Puerto Ricans in the metropolitan area.
Another is the acknowledgement that Puerto Ricans are not happy with the current commonwealth setup in which they are U.S. citizens but do not have a vote in Congress and in presidential elections.
Several lawmakers and activists also agreed Thursday that the White House has not taken an active enough role. Maggie Grant, White House director of intergovernmental affairs, was invited to testify Thursday at the hearing of the House Subcommittee on Insular Affairs but did not.
Grant led a White House task force that proposed a two-part vote on the island's status that critics say is rigged in favor of statehood.
Donna Christensen, a delegate from the Virgin Islands who chairs the subcommittee, and Rep. Nick Rahall II, D-W.V., both said they were disappointed with the White House for not showing up and hoped the Bush administration would testify at the next hearing on April 25.
"I hope that this does not mean that their intention is to drop that bombshell and disappear," Christensen said of the task force report. Christensen favors legislation preferred by commonwealth supporters.
That bill would allow Puerto Ricans to convene a constitutional convention where they would choose the options voters later would have to shape the island's political future.
Eduardo Bhatia, who runs the Puerto Rico governor's Washington office, said the lack of White House testimony Thursday showed "there should be no doubt now that the White House has turned its back on the report by the 'President's task force on Puerto Rico's status.'."
Puerto Rico's congressional delegate, Luis Fortuño, he said, "has gone out of his way to have the White House adopt that report. He even acknowledged meeting with Maggie Grant last week to try to get her to testify."
White House spokesman Blair Jones said Grant had never agreed to testify at the hearing. "We are currently reviewing the pieces of legislation that were discussed," Jones said.
Much of the focus Thursday was on the constitutionality of the two bills in Congress. The idea backed by statehood advocates and recommended by the White House task force would pit commonwealth against the combined supporters of statehood and independence.
If commonwealth lost, as polls and previous votes show it might against the combined forces of the other two sides, a second vote would be held between statehood and independence. Independence is the least popular of the three options with single digit support. Critics say that system unfairly stacks the deck against commonwealth.
The other bill would allow a convention at which Puerto Ricans from the island and the mainland would decide on the options for voters. Critics say commonwealth advocates want to propose something that would never be accepted by Congress, such as a relationship that would allow Puerto Rico to reject U.S. laws and court decisions but still have citizenship and tax benefits.
Eni Faleomavaega, congressional delegate from American Samoa, said Congress has become bogged down worrying about whether Puerto Rico would vote Democratic or Republican if it became a state. Hawaii and Alaska were admitted together as states with the assumption that Hawaii would be Republican and Alaska would be Democratic, but the reverse has happened.
Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-Rhode Island, said the island is large enough to have seven voting members of Congress if it became a state, instead of one non-voting delegate.
As he spoke, the buzzers of the House public address system and pagers of lawmakers sounded with notification a vote had begun and lawmakers began to leave the hearing to go to the House chamber. "He doesn't get to vote," Kennedy said of Fortuño. "If you want to cut right through all of the talk, that's where the bottom line is."
Tamara Lytle can be reached at 202-824-8255 or firstname.lastname@example.org.