The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

U.S. lawmakers unveil bill to make Puerto Rico 51st state, as Trump escalates feud with island officials

A voter registration booth stands during an event to help Puerto Rico hurricane victims in Elizabeth, N.J., on April 14, 2018. (Julio Cortez/AP)

House lawmakers will unveil legislation Thursday to make Puerto Rico the 51st state in the nation, pushing to give the island equal voting and economic rights in the U.S. government amid an escalating feud between President Trump and Puerto Rico officials over hurricane relief aid.

The legislation, set to be introduced by Rep. Darren Soto (D-Fla.) with the support of Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, comes as several Democratic presidential candidates have embraced calls to grant statehood to the island, which has been mired in economic stagnation as it struggles to recover from Hurricane Maria in September 2017.

The bill is likely to spark a broader debate about its status as a U.S. territory. In Puerto Rico, statehood supporters have for decades fought with those who believe the island should push for greater independence from the United States.

Some lawmakers contend that the Trump administration’s response to Hurricane Maria, as well as the imposition of federal control over the island’s budget under President Barack Obama, highlight the danger in leaving the island subject to a government it has no role in electing.

Puerto Rico has been in a recession for about 13 years and faces a government debt crisis, driving hundreds of thousands of residents to move to the states as the island’s poverty rate shot up to about three times the U.S. average.

“You can see the island’s colonial status is not working,” Soto said in an interview. “It’s time to end the 120-year injustice of Puerto Rico being a colony.”

Soto’s legislation is the first in Congress that would automatically make Puerto Rico a state, rather than call for additional statehood referendums on the island or allow admission only after certain conditions were met, according to a spokeswoman for the congressman.

Later on Thursday, Rosselló told CNN that he would not allow the island’s government to be bullied by the White House, saying: “If the bully gets close, I’ll punch the bully in the mouth.” CNN reported that White House officials had refused to meet with Puerto Rican officials, a report the governor’s office would not confirm.

Puerto Rican voters back statehood in referendum on June 11. (Video: Reuters)

But it has little chance of becoming law anytime soon, given that the Republican-controlled Senate and White House are expected to oppose the measure. Puerto Ricans don’t currently have a voting member of Congress or have a say in U.S. presidential elections (though they can vote in both major parties’ presidential primaries). Congressional Democratic leadership this year has also backed making statehood for the District of Columbia a priority, an idea supported by more than 200 House Democrats.

Soto said the bill will be supported by Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), former chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee that oversees Puerto Rico issues, as well as other House Republicans. GOP Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott of Florida, home to thousands of Puerto Rico expats, have previously expressed support for statehood if that is what Puerto Rico chooses.

The island has had multiple referendums over its political status, but the statehood question still provokes fierce debate. Most recently, in 2017, some 97 percent of those who cast ballots voted for statehood.

However, just 23 percent of all registered voters participated, as opposition parties boycotted the vote they perceived as flawed. Ramón Luis Nieves, who once served in Puerto Rico’s senate with the Popular Democratic Party, said statehood does not enjoy majority support among locals.

“We, the Puerto Rican people, have our own national identity. We do not consider ourselves ‘Americans,’ since we have our own culture, traditions and language,” Nieves said.

Statehood proponents have noted the island receives far less generous federal benefits than U.S. states, including for programs such as food stamps and Medicaid, the health-care program for the poor and disabled. Under a deal reached by Obama and GOP Congress, Puerto Rico’s budgets must be approved by a fiscal control board, appointed by Congress and the White House, that has pushed cuts to health care, education and other programs run by the island government.

The island’s lack of representation in Congress came into sharp relief after Hurricane Maria, Rosselló said in an interview last week. At the beginning of this month, the island’s government started cutting emergency food stamp benefits for 1.3 million of its residents amid criticism from the White House and an impasse in Congress.

The controversy over the administration’s treatment of Puerto Rico intensified this week after Trump privately fumed to GOP senators that the island is getting far too much money and that its funding should be redirected to U.S. states. In response, Rosselló said, “Enough with the insults and demeaning mischaracterizations.”

Trump’s attacks on the territory may be encouraging his political opponents to get behind statehood. Over the weekend, Democratic presidential hopeful Beto O’Rourke called for admitting Puerto Rico as the 51st U.S. state. Meanwhile, Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), among other candidates, have called for admitting Puerto Rico as a state if voters there approve it.

“We’re in a moment where Puerto Rico has four or five crises occurring simultaneously. The debate is so much more heated now, because the current status quo has lost its legitimacy from an economic, legal and political perspective,” said Hector Cordero-Guzmán, a professor at Baruch College, part of the City University of New York.

Soto said he is focused on building bipartisan support within the natural resources committee for the legislation, rather than racing to increase its number of co-sponsors. House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) has previously expressed support for Puerto Rican statehood, but it is unclear whether the idea has a chance of being brought up for a vote in the House.

Puerto Rico has 3.3 million residents, which is more populous than 21 states. The second largest U.S. territory, Guam, has fewer than 200,000 people.