White House Welcomes Status Bill Compromise…Acevedo Offers To Be A Democrat For Bush Initiatives…San Juan Mayor Helps Block Community Development Grant Cut

March 18, 2005
Copyright © 2005 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

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White House Welcomes Status Bill Compromise

President Bush’s lead assistant on Puerto Rico issues Wednesday termed an insular tri-partisan bill for a referendum on the territory’s ultimate political status "a positive development."

Bush’s Director of Intergovernmental Affairs, Ruben Barrales, also suggested that the President would make the "expression" called for in the bill if petitioned to by the referendum. Barrales is the lead Co-Chair of the President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status.

The bill -- which was passed by Puerto Rico’s House of Representatives Thursday -- would call a referendum July 10th to "demand from the President and Congress . . . before December 31, 2006 an expression of their commitment to respond to the People of Puerto Rico's claim to solve their political status among fully democratic options of a non-colonial and non-territorial nature."

The bill would also establish a tri-partisan Claim Committee to lobby the Congress and the President for such an expression. And it would prohibit the use of any government funds to lobby otherwise.

Puerto Rico’s Senate has been expected to act on a similar bill next week.

Barrales made the favorable comments in a meeting with the Puerto Rican Independence Party’s Secretary for U.S. Relations, Manuel Rodriguez Orrellana, and Electoral Commissioner, Juan Dalmau.

A key U.S. House of Representatives staffer on Puerto Rico’s status issue had a similar reaction to the bill as Barrales.

The bill was originally proposed by the Puerto Rican Independence Party. The final version was negotiated by Independence Party leaders along with leaders of the statehood and "commonwealth" parties.

But even as the two key federal officials were reacting positively, some members of the "commonwealth" party in both houses of Puerto Rico’s Legislative Assembly were reacting negatively to the measure worked out by their party’s minority leader in the House in consultation with Governor Anibal Acevedo Vila.

Nine of the 18 "commonwealth" party members in the House voted against the bill.

The dissident "commonwealth" party legislators’ complaints echoed those of nationalists who usually support the "commonwealth" party in elections. The complaints were also repeated Thursday by Acevedo -- despite the fact that the "commonwealth" party legislators who negotiated the bill said that he had given them the impression that he would accept it.

One complaint is that the bill does not include a "Constitutional Assembly," or the option of such a convention, to choose the status that Puerto Rico would seek from the U.S. Government. Acevedo had proposed a referendum in which Puerto Ricans would choose between having an assembly to choose Puerto Rico’s status -- which he favors -- and petitioning the federal government for a referendum among "Commonwealth," statehood, and independence options -- for which there is no apparent support in Puerto Rico.

However, a premise of the bill is that it would not resolve the issue of whether to have a "Constitutional Assembly" as favored by Acevedo or a referendum among options under which Puerto Rico would no longer be U.S. territory approved by the U.S. Government in response to Puerto Rican proposals. Puerto Rico’s statehood party had proposed such a referendum and it is supported by majorities in each house of Puerto Rico’s legislature.

The other complaint is that the Claim Committee would not include representatives of Puerto Rico’s "civil society." However, the committee would include (in equal number) representatives of Puerto Rico’s three political parties which represent almost all Puerto Ricans.

If enacted into law, the compromise referendum bill could lead to the first clear statement by Puerto Ricans that they want a status that provides for a democratic form of government at the national government level. As of now, that can only be understood by interpreting the conflicting status proposals of Puerto Rico’s parties and the inconclusive results of Puerto Rico’s 1993 and 1998 status referenda.

There has been no clear Puerto Rico tri-partisan agreement on any aspect of the territory’s status aspirations and at least the next step on the issue in 12-15 years. The differences have hindered efforts in Washington to resolve Puerto Rico’s status question and to replace its territory status -- primarily because of "commonwealth" party lobbying against federal as well as statehood and independence party initiatives.

The bill’s proposed Claim Committee would be similar to the Dialogue Committee that resolved procedural issues in Washington when Puerto Rico’s parties cooperated in seeking federal status legislation from 1989 to 1991.

That committee fell apart in 1991, however, when the "commonwealth" party governor lobbied for the legislation to be dropped. He did this after almost none of his "commonwealth" proposals were accepted in the Congress and after a Senate committee tie vote on alternative bills was interpreted as meaning Republican senators did not want to commit to statehood.

Although the bill calls for the President and the Congress to express a commitment to respond to a Puerto Rican petition for a fully democratic status, there have been similar pledges in the past. Several presidents have made such commitments. The House of Representatives did so in 1998. That year, the Senate also came close, stating it would consider such a petition. Further, a law was enacted in 2000 authorizing a Puerto Rican status choice among options proposed by Puerto Rico’s parties and agreed to by the President.

Acevedo Offers To Be A Democrat For Bush Initiatives

Governor Acevedo has sent word to the White House that he is willing to support key Bush initiatives such as the President’s proposal to have a third of an individual’s Social Security tax payments put into personal investment accounts and reduce current Social Security benefits accordingly.

The territorial governor hopes that White House officials will repay the favor by not taking positions he does not like on Puerto Rico’s political status issue and by giving him as much consideration as they give the territory’s official representative to the federal government, Resident Commissioner Luis Fortuno, a strong Republican and Bush supporter in addition to being a statehooder.

Acevedo made the offer to support Bush policies on the heels of joining the Democratic Governors Association.

Almost all leaders of the Democratic Party oppose Bush’s Social Security proposal.

Another element of Acevedo’s dual national party identity retained former Republican National Committee Chairman Charlie Black as the Commonwealth administration’s lead lobbyist in Washington. Black has played a key role on behalf of commonwealthers in blocking Puerto Rico Republican initiatives in the administrations of both the current President Bush and his father.

This is not the first time that Acevedo has played both sides in national politics. As Puerto Rico’s resident commissioner in 2002, he declined to support the Democratic candidates for governor in New York and Florida. Acevedo and predecessor as governor Sila Calderon were trying to get the Republican incumbents -- George Pataki of NY and Jeb Bush of FL, President’s Bush’s brother -- to help them gain the support of the President’s administration for their agenda.

San Juan Mayor Helps Block Community Development Grant Cut

San Juan, PR Mayor Jorge Santini (statehood/R) played a supporting role in the U.S. Senate’s defeat Thursday of a Bush Administration proposal to reform – and reduce – the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program.

Puerto Rico gets about $130 million a year from the program, which funds local community improvement and growth projects.

President’s Bush’s budget proposed moving the program from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to the Department of Commerce along with smaller similar programs and consolidating the programs. The Commerce Department’s Economic Development Administration funds projects like those funded by CDBG and the other programs.

The consolidation would have reduced the total amount of CDBG grants about 40 percent. Bush Administration officials said that the reduction in funding in Puerto Rico, however, would not have been as large because of the extent of poverty in the territory.

The proposal was strongly opposed by mayors across the nation and by a number of Republicans as well as Democrats in the Congress.

Santini joined in the fight, assisted by his Washington, DC lobbyists at the Quinn Gillespie firm. Name partner Ed Gillespie was Bush’s Republican National Committee Chairman during the President’s re-election campaign.

Lobbyist Manuel Ortiz was a member of a team that helped convince senators to reject the proposal.

The vote to reject it was 66 to 31 and sponsored by Senator Norm Coleman (R-MN).

The rejection was one of a series of Senate blows to Bush Administration budget cuts which were aimed at controlling the exploding federal budget deficit. The budget gap was an unprecedented $412 billion this fiscal year.

The biggest defeat for Bush budget proposals was a rejection of a $14 billion reduction in the growth of Medicaid, the federal subsidy for State and territorial health care for low-income and disabled individuals. The Medicaid proposal rejection was sponsored by Senators Gordon Smith (R-OR) and Jeff Bingaman (D-NM). It passed 52 to 48.

The Medicaid cuts rejection eliminates what would have been a major barrier to the hope of Puerto Rico and the other territories of the U.S. for more equal funding under the program.

Another major change from the Bush budget was a $5.4 billion increase for education programs sponsored by Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA). It passed 51 to 49. Puerto Rico would presumably significantly benefit from the increase since it receives a relatively high proportion of federal education program funds.

The rejections came as the Senate completed action on its version of the Congress’ budget for fiscal year 2006, which begins this October 1st.

The U.S. House of Representatives also passed its version of the budget late Thursday.

The House resolution went the opposite direction from the Senate on Medicaid, increasing the $14 billion savings proposed by the President to $20 billion.

Another major area of difference between the Senate and House resolutions is the size of tax cuts to make over the next five years. The Senate voted for $134 billion in cuts, the House $106 billion. The size of the tax cut will be a factor in congressional consideration of proposals to replace the tax reductions that companies in the States can take on income from Puerto Rico that expire at the end of this calendar year.

Both resolutions provide for a $2.6 trillion budget for fiscal year 2006. But the nature of the differences between the Senate and House resolutions appear to increase the likelihood that the two houses will not be able to agree on a budget for fiscal year 2006.

This does not mean, however, that the federal government will not have funding beginning October 1st. The budget resolutions set parameters for appropriations (spending) bills and tax bills but are not needed for the enactment of that legislation.

The "Washington Update" appears weekly.

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