SAN JUAN – The U.S. Senate received Wednesday for the first time a bill to make Puerto Rico the 51st state amid an economic crisis that many blame in part on contention over the island’s political status.
The bill, submitted by Sen. Martin Heinrich, establishes the mechanisms whereby the United States would admit Puerto Rico as a state, assuming the island’s citizens votes approve the idea in a binding referendum.
Heinrich, a New Mexico Democrat, is a member of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, which has jurisdiction over the status of Puerto Rico.
The bill proposes asking the island’s residents: “Do you want Puerto Rico to be admitted as a State of the United States? Yes _____ No ______.”
If the “yes” vote wins, the president will have 180 days to submit the legislation to Congress according to which Puerto Rico would be admitted as a state.
Heinrich’s bill is modeled on a measure submitted to the House of Representatives by Puerto Rico’s non-voting member of Congress, Pedro Pierluisi, leader of the pro-statehood PNP.
Gov. Alejandro Garcia Padilla, who heads Puerto Rico’s other main party, the PPD, wants the island to remain a U.S. commonwealth, though with enhanced scope for self-government.
The United States invaded Puerto Rico during the Spanish-American War.
Island residents were granted U.S. citizenship in 1917 but they cannot vote in presidential elections, although Puerto Ricans living in the continental United States can do so.
Since 1952, the island has been a Free Associated State of the United States, an unincorporated territory with broad internal autonomy.
There are many who are convinced that the limitations of commonwealth status is the main thing responsible for the crisis in which Puerto Rico is mired, a situation that was aggravated over the past week by the downgrading of its debt to junk bond status.
Fifty-four percent of Puerto Rican voters supported a change in status in a non-binding referendum coinciding with the November 2012 gubernatorial election.
The ballot consisted of two questions.
Sixty-one percent of those who answered the second question favored statehood over the other two choices: enhanced commonwealth status – the PPD’s proposal – or independence.
But more than 460,000 Puerto Ricans who voted on the first status question did not respond to the second question.
Recently, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid expressed his support for statehood for Puerto Rico, just as Vice President Joe Biden has done.