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Rep. Darren Soto pushes for Puerto Rico statehood with new bill

“This bill is about respecting democracy," Soto said. "Puerto Ricans need their own U.S. senators and representatives to fight for their needs."
Image: Rep. Darren Soto, D-Fla., at the Longworth Building on April 11, 2018.
Rep. Darren Soto, D-Fla., at the Longworth Building on April 11, 2018.Tom Williams / CQ Roll Call via AP file

Rep. Darren Soto, D-Fla., introduced legislation Thursday to make Puerto Rico the nation's 51st state without the need for a new plebiscite in the U.S. territory, saying his bill is "about respecting democracy."

Instead, it would take into account previous votes on the issue held in the island.

“Puerto Rico’s colonial status in not working … Puerto Ricans need their own U.S. senators and representatives to fight for their needs and hold Washington accountable,” the congressman said at a press conference in Washington announcing the new legislation. “This bill is about respecting democracy.”

The last plebiscite asking Puerto Ricans if they wanted to become a state took place in 2017. Though 97 percent of people who voted favored statehood, opposition parties boycotted the plebiscite, so it had a record low turnout of 23 percent.

In 2012, 61 percent of voters favored statehood, but that plebiscite was also mired in controversy over the way the choices for voters were phrased.

San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, who does not support statehood, took to Twitter to slam Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló for supporting Soto’s legislation.

“If Rossello supports that Puerto Rico becomes a state WITHOUT CONSULTING THE PEOPLE,” Yulín Cruz tweeted, “it will reveal what it is: an aspiring dictator who wants forcibly get something people didn’t vote for.” Yulin Cruz recently announced she is running for Puerto Rico governor in 2020 under the opposing party.

If no one else challenges their candidacies, Rosselló, who is running for reelection, will face off against Yulín Cruz.

Puerto Rico has three main parties: the New Progressive Party (PNP), which advocates for statehood and is currently in power under Rosselló; the Popular Democratic Party (PPD), which supports the existing commonwealth status (Yulín Cruz is running under the PPD); and the Puerto Rican Independence Party. The majority of islanders have historically voted for governors from the statehood or commonwealth parties.

Carlos Vargas-Ramos, a research associate who studies the impact of migration on Puerto Rican political behavior at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College-CUNY, told NBC News that bills promoting debates around Puerto Rico’s territorial status serve to motivate the Puerto Rican political base, especially those who support statehood.

Soto, who represents millions of Puerto Ricans living in Florida, is almost “18 months away from Congressional elections,” said Vargas-Ramos.“This could be seen as a response to pressure from his constituents.”

Puerto Rico’s future has become a key campaign issue for Democrats and Republicans alike ahead of the 2020 elections, especially following the island’s severe fiscal crisis and the destruction caused by Hurricane Maria in 2017, which killed at least 2,975 people.

Soto’s bipartisan bill also calls for Puerto Rico to be incorporated as a state within 90 days after the measure becomes law.

Even though the legislation has the support of Rosselló and the island’s nonvoting member of Congress, Jenniffer González, who are both part of the Puerto Rican pro-statehood political party, it is almost certain that Soto’s bill will face pushback in the U.S. House and Senate.

Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., the new chair of the House Natural Resources Committee — which oversees affairs in U.S. territories — has said on multiple occasions that while it is important to resolve Puerto Rico’s territorial status, it is not an immediate priority.

While Grijalva led a delegation of committee members, including Soto, during a trip to Puerto Rico to meet with legislators and groups in mid-March, he said he wanted to “focus on immediate and urgent solutions” to help Puerto Rico recover because “the debate over the status is a slow one, that could take months, even years.”

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, the chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, has said she is not considering pushing forward a pro-statehood project.

Despite the pushback, Soto's legislation could at least help open a debate around statehood in Congress.

“I would ask that every decision-maker has a strong position on this bill on Puerto Rico, to not allow anybody to get away with an easy answer,” Rosselló said during the press conference.

Democratic Reps. Ruben Gallego of Arizona and Jamie Raskin of Maryland, and Republican Rep. Don Young of Alaska support the bill.

“Statehood will come to Puerto Rico, but is a matter of time,” González, who co-introduced the bill alongside Soto, said during the press conference. “We have to make sure Congress acts.”

This is the third legislation González has introduced to grant statehood to Puerto Rico. She introduced a bipartisan bill last summer and the Puerto Rico Admission bill in 2017.

The bills never made it to the House or the Senate floors.

According to Vargas-Ramos, the newest pro-statehood bill has minimal chances of making it to the House floor and zero chances in the Senate. President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have not expressed clear interest in making Puerto Rico a state.

"Most likely, nothing is going to happen on the status of Puerto Rico in my lifetime," said Vargas-Ramos, explaining that there is "nothing happening in national or international politics forcing Congress to take on this issue right now."