The Washington Post, Washington, DC

The Puerto Rican Asterisk

(08/04/98, Copyright © 1998 The Washington Post Co. All Rights Reserved)

THE LARGE and important burden of removing the asterisk from the American citizenship of residents of Puerto Rico now rests on the Senate. The House has done its bit by agreeing for the first time not simply to define the island's political options but also to commit Congress to honor Puerto Rico's choice among them. President Clinton is eager to proceed. But 100 years after the United States took the territory from Spain, the Senate still isn't sure. Republican majority leader Trent Lott doubts there's time to legislate before Congress adjourns in October.

Enough House Republicans came aboard to pass Puerto Rico legislation -- by one vote. The going in the Senate is harder. The key committee chairman, Frank Murkowski, has now drafted a bill meant to calm critics without compromising the core purpose of ensuring full self-determination. It obliges the president to draw up a multi-year implementation program, but it does not oblige him to put the plan into effect. It authorizes a plebiscite scheme but does not commit Congress to honor its results. A process thus begun by law would be expected to be carried forward by moral commitment and political momentum.

That many Democrats favor legislation is often taken as evidence that a Puerto Rican choice of statehood would be to the national Democrats' political advantage. But who can be sure? The political experts guessed wrong on both Alaska and Hawaii. The national vote in a new state of Puerto Rico -- in a new context of rising Hispanic voting -- wouldn't begin for 10 or more years. Then, the English-only Republicans profess a concern for the changing fabric of American society. But statehood would not of itself add any Spanish-speakers. The English-only cry risks becoming a right-wing hot button.

To force the congressional pace, the pro-statehood governor of Puerto Rico, Pedro Rossello, is asking the island's willing legislature to hold a plebiscite on Dec. 13. The choices would be to continue commonwealth, to initiate statehood or to initiate independence. The plebiscite's terms would be shaped to the legislation pending in Congress. One hundred years after the imperial fact, it is past time to repudiate a colonial-type system that denies Puerto Ricans full vote and voice in national law-making and much else.

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