The Hartford Courant, Hartford, CT


(07/24/98, Copyright © 1998 The Hartford Courant)

Without explaining what he means, U.S. Sen. Frank H. Murkowski has let it be known that only a stripped-down version of the United States-Puerto Rico Political Status Act can be passed before the end of the congressional session on Aug. 3. That would be a shame.

The Alaska Republican chairs the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which has been sitting on the legislation for weeks. The fear is that a vote to send an amended version of the status act to the Senate floor would come within a few days of the session's end. This would allow little time for review and would open Congress to well-deserved criticism for denying Puerto Ricans the opportunity to decide in a referendum whether they favor independence, the status quo as a commonwealth or statehood.

The bill that passed the House several months ago was straightforward and should not require much tinkering. It simply set the framework for Puerto Ricans to choose their political future -- statehood, independence or commonwealth -- in a binding plebiscite by the end of this year. The bill has the support of statehooders and those who favor independence.

Opponents of the bill include a small number of lawmakers who want to impose English as Puerto Rico's only official language and preservers of the commonwealth status.

English is not the official language of the United States, although 22 states have adopted it largely as a symbolic gesture. By extension then, English should not be forced on what may become the newest member of the union without its consent. Such a restrictive law would offend the principle of pluralism toward which this country aspires. As it is, both Spanish and English have been the official languages of Puerto Rico since 1993.

As for commonwealth leaders, they are somewhat fragmented. Their party subscribes to the idea of permanent union with the United States as a potential goal. They just don't want it now.

Any further delay or watering down of this bill would be unwarranted. Connecticut Sens. Christopher J. Dodd and Joseph I. Lieberman, who have tens of thousands of constituents of Puerto Rican descent, should be in the forefront of the effort to give the people of the Caribbean island the opportunity to decide their own future.

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