WASHINGTON — House lawmakers on Thursday will unveil legislation 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 Donald 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 in both the states and Puerto Rico about the island's status as a U.S. territory. In Puerto Rico, supporters of statehood have for decades fought with those who believe the island should instead push for greater independence from the United States.
Some lawmakers have argued 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 an economic recession for about 13 years and faces a government debt crisis, leading hundreds of thousands of residents to move to the states as the island's poverty rate rise about three times as high as the average in the United States.
"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 introduced in Congress that would automatically make Puerto Rico a state, rather than calling for additional statehood referendums on the island or only allow admission after certain conditions were met, according to a spokeswoman for the congressman.
It has little chance of being signed into law anytime soon, given that Republicans control the Senate and the White House and are expected to oppose the measure. Under current law, Puerto Rico does not elect voting members of Congress, or have a say in U.S. presidential elections (although 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. Republican Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott of Florida, home to thousands who have moved from Puerto Rico, have previously expressed support for statehood for the island if that is what Puerto Rico chooses.
The island has held multiple referendum votes over its political status, but the statehood question still provokes fierce debate. Most recently, in a 2017 referendum, 97 percent of those who cast ballots voted for statehood.
However, only 23 percent of all registered voters cast ballots, as opposition parties boycotted the vote they perceived as flawed. Ramon Luis Nieves, a former Puerto Rico state senator who belongs to the island's pro-independence party, said statehood does not enjoy majority support among Puerto Ricans.
"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," Luis Nieves said.
Proponents of statehood 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 the Republican Congress, Puerto Rico's budgets must now 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's government.
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The island's lack of representation in Congress has also come into sharp relief in the wake of 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 Puerto Rican residents amid criticism from the White House and an impasse in Congress.
The controversy over federal treatment of Puerto Rico intensified again 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. Rosselló responded by attacking the president: "Enough with the insults and demeaning mischaracterizations."
Trump's attacks on Puerto Rico may be encouraging his political opponents to voice support for statehood for Puerto Rico. Democratic presidential hopeful Beto O'Rourke over the weekend called for admitting Puerto Rico as the 51st U.S. state, while Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass, and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., among other candidates, have called for admitting Puerto Rico as a state if that is what the island votes to approve.
"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 Hoyer, D-Md., has previously expressed support for Puerto Rican statehood, but it is unclear if the idea has a chance of being brought up for a vote in the House.
Puerto Rico has 3.3 million residents, which would make it bigger than 21 existing U.S. states. The second largest U.S. territory, Guam, has fewer than 200,000 people.