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Will a new Congress stall momentum on resolving Puerto Rico’s territorial status?

The Puerto Rico Status Act passed the House last week. But without a Senate floor vote, a procedural reset in a new Congress may set back progress already made.
People enjoy an evening in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico.
The Puerto Rico Status Act is set to face significant headwinds.Spencer Platt / Getty Images

WASHINGTON — The Puerto Rico Status Act isn't expected to get a vote in the Senate before Congress adjourns Friday, leaving an uncertain future for the bill that seeks to change the U.S. territory's status through a federally binding plebiscite.

Next year, the process will be in the hands of the newly elected Congress, possibly setting back momentum already gained in the House.

The Biden administration announced its support last week, calling on Congress to "act swiftly to put the future of Puerto Rico’s political status in the hands of Puerto Ricans." Hours later, the House passed the measure in a 233-191 vote.

All no votes were from Republicans; 16 GOP members joined 217 Democrats to approve the bill.

But just half of the 16 Republicans who supported the legislation will return to a Republican-controlled House next year, and the measure is set to face significant headwinds.

In addition, Democrats in the Senate will lack the votes to overcome a filibuster.

The procedural reset will require another vote in the House Natural Resources Committee, which oversees the affairs of U.S. territories, before it ever gets a shot at a second House floor vote in 2023.

The committee won't be chaired by Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-N.M., the bill's lead sponsor. Instead, Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., is expected to take over.

Westerman has accused Democrats of having circumvented the ordinary procedure for approving the bill. He voted against the Puerto Rico Status Act on the floor last week, calling for "letting a full and robust legislative process take place."

One of the bill’s main negotiators, Rep. Nydia Velázquez, D-N.Y., the first Puerto Rican woman elected to Congress, is confident about more congressional hearings on Puerto Rico's territorial status in the new year.

Velázquez said the measure "is a clear recognition by the U.S. Congress that the United States exerts colonial power over the people of Puerto Rico."

The bill would lay out the terms of a binding plebiscite in which Puerto Ricans on the island would get to choose among three non-territorial status options: statehood, independence and sovereignty in free association with the U.S. It would also provide a transition to the new status.

"I have seen that a shift in the conversation has begun in Washington regarding the negative effects that the colonial status has on Puerto Rico," Velázquez said. "I believe this is in part thanks to the Puerto Rico Status Act."

The bill marks the first time the House has approved a binding plebiscite that would exclude Puerto Rico’s current territorial status as one of the options.

That’s intentional, said Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González-Colón, a Republican nonvoting member of Congress representing Puerto Rico who favors statehood and helped negotiate the Puerto Rico Status Act.

Given that the focus of the bill is on decolonizing Puerto Rico, “we cannot have the problem as a solution,” González-Colón said in testimony to the House Rules Committee last week.

“We’ve been a territory for 124 years," she said. "We don’t want to remain as a territory.”

Velázquez said she believes "there is some momentum that we can build off going into the next Congress, especially since this bill passed on a bipartisan basis."

What’s next for Puerto Rico’s territorial status?

Even if the Puerto Rico Status Act beats all the odds in the House and is approved again next year, Democrats would need nine Republicans to break ranks to get the 60 votes needed to pass it in the Senate.

A handful of Republican senators who represent large Puerto Rican communities in the states could be among Senate Democrats' best bets to get the support they need.

Some of them have voiced hesitation about moving forward with a status vote in Puerto Rico any time soon, citing its financial woes.

Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., said he thinks Puerto Rico should “get their fiscal house in order” before it decides to change its territorial status. Scott, who represents more than a million Puerto Ricans who live in Florida, has supported statehood in the past.

In 2015, during the Obama administration, Puerto Rico was unable to pay its $70 billion public debt, prompting Congress to create the 2016 Promesa law, because U.S. laws excluded Puerto Rico from the federal bankruptcy code.

Promesa established the federal financial oversight board, which oversees Puerto Rico's fiscal responsibilities, and created a mechanism for the territory to restructure its debt in federal court.

Puerto Rico’s government formally exited a form of bankruptcy in March, six years after the oversight board was implemented, which led to widely criticized austerity measures on an island that paid $1 billion in fees to consultants and lawyers and in other expenses during the process.

"Puerto Rico can’t negotiate with other countries or control its fiscal policy," Velázquez said. "Puerto Ricans have been forced to compromise with the United States under the current territorial status that has almost never benefited them.

"Members of Congress should be upset that the Constitution they swear to protect is currently being used to legitimize colonialism in Puerto Rico," she added.

The Puerto Rico Status Act was the result of a consensus among members of Congress who previously sponsored competing bills: a pro-statehood bill introduced by González-Colón and Rep. Darren Soto, D-Fla., and the Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act, introduced by Velázquez and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y.

The issue of status has long divided Puerto Ricans in the territory, in large part because of how their local political party system is organized.

Most people support either the pro-statehood New Progressive Party or the Popular Democratic Party, which supports the current territorial status. A smaller percentage of “independentistas” support the Puerto Rican Independence Party, which advocates for independence from the U.S.

The previous competing bills, as well as the debates that ensued during multiple hearings in Congress, echoed such divisions.

Some Senate Republicans can't get past the divisive nature of the status issue.

“There should be a significant consensus on the island before the status is changed in one direction,” said Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss.

Excluding Puerto Rico’s territorial status also gives Wicker and others pause. “I would just want to make sure it’s worded accurately," he said. "That it’s not designed to get one result over the other."

Soto, who also helped combine previous competing bills into the Puerto Rico Status Act, doesn't think the bill will get a second House floor vote in the next term.

“But I do think we have a valuable opportunity in the Senate to advance and get senators more comfortable with the issue,” Soto said. “We’ll continue to fight 1,000 different battles until we can win the war.”

Based on the lessons she has learned through the Puerto Rico Status Act, Velázquez agrees.

"There will never be a perfect bill, but members with opposite views can come together to craft a bill," she said. "If members of Congress believe in upholding the U.S. constitutional values and that we shouldn’t be a colonizing nation, then I do believe there is consensus to get the current Puerto Rico status changed."

Nicole Acevedo reported from San Juan, Puerto Rico, and Eric Bazail-Eimil reported from Washington.