Richmond Times-Dispatch, Richmond, Virginia


Gil Klein, Media General News Service

(09/07/98, Copyright © 1998 Richmond Times-Dispatch)

The Puerto Rican government is enlisting national Hispanic groups to try to convince the Republican leadership to allow a vote in the Senate that could lead to Puerto Rico becoming the 51st state.

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott said last week the Senate should not act this year on a bill that would set the conditions for a plebiscite in Puerto Rico on statehood .

"I don't believe that we should act on that this year," he said at a news conference. "I think that there are questions still remaining, and I don't think we have the time to allow for a full debate."

Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Rossello replied that the GOP leadership has risked offending all of the nation's Hispanic population by dismissing this vote.

"This issue is very important to Puerto Rico ," Rossello said. "Latinos would view Senate inaction as a GOP rejection of Hispanics and as an unsympathetic act of insensitivity."

Xavier Rameu, director of Puerto Rico 's Federal Affairs Administration in Washington, said the island would be eliciting support from national Hispanic groups to try to convince Lott to change his mind.

"In the next two or three weeks, the GOP has to come to grips with how it is going to treat its Hispanic citizens," Rameu said. "So far, this has not been a Republican vs. Democrat issue, but they are making it one."

Hispanics are the fastest growing minority in the United States, and many Republican advisers have warned the party that it should try to attract them.

"Latinos have traditionally been Catholic and Democratic," said Selena Walsh of the League of United Latin American Citizens, one of the largest Hispanic advocacy organizations. "If the GOP wants to woo us, they have to look to our key issues, and this is one of them."

Puerto Rican statehood , she said, would provide "instant representation" for Hispanics in Congress as the new state would bring in six House members and two senators.

Puerto Rico and its 3.8 million American citizens are marking their 100th anniversary as United States possession, and the Puerto Rican government has petitioned Congress to authorize a vote on its status .

Puerto Ricans were made American citizens in 1917. Since 1952 it has been a commonwealth with control over its own local affairs but is under the jurisdiction of federal laws. Puerto Ricans pay no income taxes, but they cannot vote in presidential elections and have no votes in Congress.

Puerto Rican politics revolves around the status issue, and in recent years the pro- statehood party has been gaining power. Today the governor and the majority of both houses of the island's legislature are pro- statehood .

In March, the House approved by a one-vote margin a bill that set a course for Puerto Ricans to decide whether they want to become a state, establish their independence, or remain a commonwealth under U.S. control.

Even though Republicans have made Puerto Rican statehood part of their party platform for more than 20 years, the House bill passed with far more Democratic than Republican support.

Even without congressional authorization, Rossello has scheduled a plebiscite on the island's political status for Dec. 13. A similar vote in 1993 found the island's voters about evenly split between commonwealth and statehood with a small minority opting for independence.

Lott said he believed Puerto Rico should go ahead with the plebiscite without a congressional vote.

"I understand Puerto Rico is doing what I have been asking why they didn't do, for quite some time," the Mississippi Republican said. "They are going to have a referendum themselves." Why don't they just do it, and we'll see what happens?"

But it makes a big difference to the pro- statehood party whether Congress has authorized this election or not. Only Congress has the power to change the island's status , and therefore Congress must set the conditions for what it would accept.

"Lott knows this is not the way to do it," Rameu said. "Only Congress can offer the alternatives"

For example, the bill under consideration in the Senate does not guarantee U.S. citizenship for Puerto Ricans under commonwealth, as the island's pro-commonwealth party would like. It merely says that it is U.S. policy to continue U.S. citizenship for Puerto Ricans.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which has jurisdiction over the legislation, hope to complete a bill on Sept. 16 that would define each political status .

Once that bill is completed, only a couple of weeks will remain before the 105th Congress adjourns. That's when the Puerto Rican government hopes to turn up the heat on the Republican leadership.

"I know their schedule is full," Rameu said, "but I'll bet they can find three hours to debate a bill that is five pages long."

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