The Washington Times
"Puerto Rico bill advances in Senate 1-vote margin dims prospects in Senate"
by Nancy E. Roman and Mary Ann Akers
(Published 03/05/98, Copyright 1998)
The House last night adopted the Puerto Rico statehood bill by a single vote in a raucous session after first killing an amendment that would have made English the official language of the United States. Members on both sides of the debate shouted wildly during the last minute of voting, during which Rep. Earl Pomeroy, North Dakota Democrat, cast a "no" vote, then changed it to "yes" to make the tally 209 votes for, 208 votes against. The Senate so far has no plans to take up the bill. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott mused yesterday that the House wandered needlessly into a "hornet's nest." The tiny margin of victory is likely to encourage opposition in the grass roots, where the Puerto Rico statehood initiative is little known and not believed to be popular.
But statehood proponents celebrated their victory last night. "This is one small step to bring justice to America and to the Puerto Rican people," said Rep. Don Young, Alaska Republican and sponsor of the legislation that would allow Puerto Ricans to decide whether the commonwealth becomes a state. Carlos A. Romero-Barcelo, the nonvoting delegate from Puerto Rico, hailed the victory as the right answer to a fundamental question: "Do we cherish our democracy enough to put an end to 100 years of colonialism?"
The bill, backed by President Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Georgia Republican, would require Puerto Ricans to vote by Dec. 31 on whether to join the United States. Voters would have three choices: statehood, independence or commonwealth status. It mandates a vote every 10 years until statehood or independence gets a simple majority. If a majority of Puerto Ricans choose statehood, the president must submit to Congress a plan that lays out a transition from commonwealth to statehood. The procedure could take as long as 10 years.
Several Republican members expressed dismay last night that the plebiscite bill overcame higher priorities for the party leadership, with popular issues such as legal reform and cutting taxes going unaddressed in a session whose greatest achievement had been renaming Washington National Airport for Ronald Reagan. Asked whether the House Republican leadership erred in bringing the plebiscite bill to the floor, House Republican leader Dick Armey laughed heartily, then walked onto the floor.
The vote followed a highly emotional debate that built odd alliances among conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats, while splitting the Hispanic Caucus and fracturing the entire Republican Conference.
"Many of you may wonder why you or your constituents should care," Mr. Romero-Barcelo said, raising the very question that had many Republican members perplexed all day. "This certainly is not something that people in my district want at all," said Rep. Bob Barr, Georgia Republican. "They just aren't in favor of it, period." The arguments on the House floor centered on whether to abolish a system some have deemed tantamount to colonialism or to preserve the culture of a Caribbean island governed by, but separate from, the United States. Many members expressed concerns about the economic implications of creating a 51st state. "We have absolutely no conception today as to how much this would cost," said Rep. Bill Archer, Texas Republican and chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. He noted there have been no studies about what statehood would mean for tax revenues or for liabilities.
The most hotly debated issue was an amendment by Rep. Gerald B.H. Solomon, New York Republican, that would make English the nation's official language - and applying to Puerto Rico if it achieved statehood.
"This is a political football," said Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy, Rhode Island Democrat, who trembled with emotion. "How often do we ask the 200,000 Puerto Ricans who served in defending our nation's liberty how well they spoke English. Why is it right now?"
Mr. Solomon's effort failed as members voted instead 238 to 182 for a bipartisan amendment that would simply "promote the teaching of English."
Even some Republicans who favor English as the official language of the United States opposed the Solomon amendment, deriding it as an attempt to kill the underlying legislation.
Rep. Jennifer Dunn, Washington Republican and vice chairman of the Republican Conference, argued against considering statehood for an island whose people are themselves deeply divided on whether to join the United States. Other Republicans argued that the entire debate unnecessarily irritates the conservative base of the party: the English-only movement that frowns on statehood for a Spanish-speaking island.
But Rep. John Linder, Georgia Republican and chairman of the National Republican Campaign Committee, said the leadership had no choice but to allow the bill to the floor. "Hey, it's come through the system. It's what you have to do. It's also been in the Republican platform since 1964."
Mr. Gingrich told the conference in Williamsburg last month that the House would vote on the plebiscite bill. He has said it provides an opportunity for the party to make inroads with Hispanic voters.
But Rep. Henry Bonilla, the Texan tapped by Mr. Gingrich to head a Republican task force examining how the party can build bridges to Hispanics, has expressed reservations about whether Mr. Gingrich's strategy will succeed. Some Republicans have called it transparent pandering.
One Republican said he suspects that Mr. Gingrich was paying more attention to a prospective run for the presidency in 2000 than to his duties as House speaker when he decided to allow the bill to the floor. "His poll numbers are going up and he wants to keep them up and add some depth to them," he said.