‘Historic’ Puerto Rico Status Compromise Bill Faces Uncertain Future in Congress

May 19, 2022
4:59 PM

Rep. Nydia Velázquez, D-NY, speaks at a press conference on a compromise bill to resolve Puerto Rico’s political status, Washington, D.C., Thursday, May 19, 2022. (Nydia Velázquez/Twitter)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Following a press conference on Thursday, members of the House negotiating team behind a potential consensus bill on Puerto Rico’s status released what is likely a messaging bill meant to act as a framework for further negotiations and their outcome.

A messaging bill, in the parlance of Congress, is legislation that is unlikely to pass both chambers of Congress but instead is designed to do exactly that: send a message.

The new Puerto Rico Status Act would create a binding process through which Puerto Ricans would vote on the future status of the archipelago. Puerto Rico is currently an unincorporated territory of the United States—essentially a colony.

The bill presents three options to the people of Puerto Rico: statehood, free association, and independence. All parties involved have formed a consensus on rejecting the current status quo or any similar territorial status.

The bill was hard-fought in the House of Representatives, where Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) presided over two camps: a self-determination camp led by Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-NY) and a statehood camp led by Puerto Rico’s resident commissioner, Rep. Jenniffer González Colón, advocating for statehood.

“There were concessions on both sides,” said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY). “Congresswoman Velázquez and I wanted a constitutional convention. That was a concession on our side. The statehood side wanted just a pure statehood yes or no, and that was a concession that they were willing to make.”

“So both of us have given up things,” Ocasio-Cortez continued. “But what we really have is a binding plebiscite with guardrails on campaigning, because one of our big fears is the entrance of dark money into a potential plebiscite campaign. And so there are strong guard rails with the [U.S. Department of Justice] reviewing campaign materials.”

Majority Leader Hoyer presented the discussion draft of the bill at a midday press conference on Thursday flanked by Ocasio-Cortez and fellow Democratic Reps. Raúl Grijalva (AZ), Velázquez, Darren Soto (D-FL), Ruben Gallego (AZ), and Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Pierluisi. Resident Commissioner González-Colón is a registered Republican.

Hoyer said that the bill will receive input from Puerto Ricans and go through a hearing process in the House Committee on Natural Resources, which oversees insular affairs including Puerto Rico. Should everything go according to plan, the bill could get a vote on the House floor as early as late June, according to committee sources.

That’s when things get complicated for the “Puerto Rico Status Act Discussion Draft” that was unveiled Thursday. If the bill does in fact pass the House, it’s on to the Senate where Puerto Rico is far from a priority.

Latino Rebels asked over 30 Senators this week about Puerto Rico, and the main takeaway from their responses is that Puerto Rico is not a priority in the upper chamber of Congress.

Most of the senators couldn’t point to a specific time when the island had been discussed during the current session, which began in the days following the deadly assault on the Capitol by supporters of former President Donald Trump in January 2021.

“They haven’t had a hurricane recently, so that’s a good thing,” said Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) when asked by Latino Rebels if Puerto Rico is a priority in the Senate. “I haven’t heard it come up at all.”

Even if the Puerto Rico Status Act passes the House —which is far from certain— it would still need to pass the Senate, where 60 votes are required to break a filibuster. If it doesn’t pass Congress, then there will be no binding plebiscite, currently scheduled for November 5, 2023.

“I am sure [Senate Majority Leader] Chuck Schumer, Bob Menendez, Martin Heinrich, among others, will do their part to make sure the Senate Acts on this as well,” said Pierluisi. “Definitely Sen. Murkowski would be interested given the fact that she represents Alaska and Alaska went through a similar process way back in 1959.”

This Puerto Rico policy moment is ultimately a testament to the art of compromise that was required for Leader Hoyer and the House Hispanic Caucus negotiators to rethink the island’s future.

If the Puerto Rico Status Act is indeed a messaging bill, the message seems to be that the rising tide of Boricuas in Congress can come together and compromise toward a decolonial end.

“It is truly historic in having a process of self-determination and decolonization of the island,” said Ocasio-Cortez. “We’re really talking about ending the colonial status.”

Read the text of the bill here.


Pablo Manríquez is the Washington correspondent for Latino Rebels. Twitter: @PabloReports