A House committee brushed aside arguments that it was snubbing District demands for statehood and voted 37 to 1 yesterday for legislation that would allow Puerto Rico to hold a referendum on whether to seek statehood, become an independent nation or continue as a U.S. commonwealth.
Supporters said the lopsided vote by the House Interior and Insular Affairs Committee should bode well for the legislation, which has been endorsed by the White House and all three of Puerto Rico's major political parties. But Rep. Bill Richardson (D-N.M.), pointing to major differences between the House bill and one in the Senate, warned that "the biggest enemy of this bill is the congressional calendar."
Noting that the measure could die if Congress adjourns in two weeks as scheduled, Richardson appealed to Puerto Rican officials who packed the hearing room to begin discussions with Senate leaders immediately. "The time has come to bite the bullet," he said.
Puerto Rican Gov. Raphael Hernandez Colon, who supports continuing the island's commonwealth status, predicted later that the Senate would largely accept the House version, but would probably insist that the legislation incorporate some Senate language describing the impact of each of the three political options.
"It's either this bill or no bill," said Del. Ron de Lugo (D-Virgin Islands), chief sponsor of the House bill. De Lugo and others cautioned, however, that the House is not likely to agree to extensive changes in its approach and that if there are sharp disagreements between the two chambers, the measure would be doomed.
De Lugo's bill calls for a two-step process beginning with the referendum Sept. 16, 1991. Congress then would have to approve a second bill to implement whatever choice receives a majority vote, and Puerto Rican voters would have to ratify those provisions in a second referendum.
Only Rep. Ron Marlenee (R-Mont.) voted against the proposal. Marlenee noted bitterly that his state is likely to lose one of its two House members, while Puerto Rico could obtain four votes under statehood. Under the island's current commonwealth status, Puerto Ricans have U.S. citizenship, but no voting rights or voting representation in Congress.
Rep. Mel Levine (D-Calif.), a junior member of the panel, attempted to raise the issue of D.C. statehood. "I fail to see the difference," he said, between the Bush administration's support for Puerto Rican statehood and the District's efforts to become a state, which the Bush administration has opposed.
That brought a sharp response from Republicans, who contended that the two issues are not related, and a quick gavel from Rep. Morris K. Udall (D-Ariz.), the committee chairman. Udall declared that Levine "appears to be opening a can of worms" and directed the committee to move on to other issues.
The committee sought to resolve one of the referendum's major issues by authorizing the Puerto Rican legislature to determine in consultation with the island's three political parties whether Puerto Rican natives who live on the mainland may vote on the island's future. The committee concluded that Congress should allow the legislature to include as voters people born on the island and those "who have at least one parent who was born in Puerto Rico."
That provision was drafted at the request of several New York City legislators whose districts include large Puerto Rican populations. Hernandez Colon said he supported the provision, although he believes most residents of the island are opposed. "I believe it is right because all Puerto Ricans are one," he said.