Acevedo Veto Takes Puerto Rico Status Issue Off Committees’ Agenda… But Congressmen Still Ready to Act… Co-Chair of Bush Puerto Rico Status Task Force Resigns… Acevedo Aide Focuses on National Program Funding… Acevedo Senate Ally Lott Eyeing Comeback

April 15, 2005
Copyright © 2005 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

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Acevedo Veto Takes Puerto Rico Status Issue Off Committees’ Agenda

Resolving the question of Puerto Rico’s ultimate political status was scratched off the agendas of the Congress’ committees on territorial affairs this week. The erasures came as staff learned that the leaders of the territory’s "commonwealth" party withdrew their support for compromise local legislation on the issue.

When word of the initial compromise reached Washington, the issue had been ‘penciled-in’ for action this Congress by staff of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources and of the House of Representatives Committee on Resources.

Puerto Rico Governor Anibal Acevedo Vila, the "commonwealth" party’s president, led the about-face on the legislation by vetoing a bill that he had earlier publicly said he would sign . . . and that commonwealthers in Puerto Rico’s Legislative Assembly had joined the statehood party majority and independentistas in unanimously passing.

The "commonwealth" minority in each house of the legislature followed Acevedo ‘man-by-man’ by failing to vote to override the bill for which they had earlier voted. The vote of only one "commonwealth" party member in the House was needed to override Acevedo’s veto by a two-thirds majority in each house.

The bill would have called a referendum July 10 to petition the Congress and the President for expressions by the end of 2006 of a commitment to respond to a Puerto Rican choice of a status that provides a democratic form of government at the national level (that is, Puerto Rican voting representation in the making and application of national laws, with the nation being either PR or the U.S.).

The bill would also have established a tri-partisan committee to lobby for the federal expressions.

If there were no federal expressions in response to the referendum by the end of 2006, the bill would have committed the legislature to in 2007 consider legislation for a referendum among options of: asking the Congress for a referendum on fully-democratic options; a local "Constitutional Assembly" to propose such a status; or other measures.

Curiously, Acevedo said he vetoed the bill because the commitment for the referendum in 2007 was in adequate. The explanation was curious since the language was the "commonwealth" party’s proposal word-for-word.

A more likely reason for the veto is that Acevedo learned that federal officials would have expressed a commitment to respond to a Puerto Rican choice of a form of government that is democratic at the national level -- U.S. statehood or nationhood.

Under the bill, these expressions would have meant that the Legislative Assembly would not have had to call a referendum in 2007 on status process options including the "Constitutional Assembly" that Acevedo favors.

Acevedo favors the assembly for two reasons. One is that he sees it as the only way to get Puerto Rican majority support for his proposal for Puerto Rico’s future status. He thinks that this would be accomplished by getting pro-independence delegates in an assembly to support his "commonwealth" proposal. Pro-independence delegates would supposedly do this to block statehood. Commonwealthers would presumably win a substantial number of seats in an elected assembly but not a majority. The same is expected for statehooders.

The other reason that Acevedo wants a "Constitutional Assembly" to propose a new Puerto Rico relationship with the United States is that he knows that federal officials regard his relationship proposal as an impossibility. He hopes that a "Constitutional Assembly" majority will intimidate federal officials into accepting the proposal because it would then represent the "self-determination will" of 3.9 million people who have lacked democracy at the national government level under the U.S. flag for over a century.

Under Acevedo’s proposal, the United States would be permanently bound to Puerto Rico and the following relationship: The Commonwealth would determine the application of federal laws and enter into agreements as if it were a sovereign nation. The United States would continue to grant citizenship in Puerto Rico and all current aid to Puerto Ricans. It would also appropriate a new annual subsidy for the Commonwealth government.

But Congressmen Still Ready to Act

While committee staff this week erased resolving the question of Puerto Rico’s ultimate status from their plans for the committees this Congress, some key congressman expressed determination to press the issue despite Governor Acevedo’s veto of the local tri-partisan compromise status legislation.

A key House subcommittee chairman told Puerto Rico Senate President Kenneth McClintock (statehood/D) that he was ready to sponsor a bill. The chairman plans sponsorship by a coalition of Democrats and Republicans. A member of the House Democratic leadership confirmed that he, too, wanted to explore ways of advancing the issue of Puerto Rico attaining a democratic status.

The bill may be sponsored in response to a resolution of Puerto Rico’s Legislative Assembly asking for the federal government to enable Puerto Ricans to choose a fully democratic form of government. Under Puerto Rico’s local constitution, the Legislative Assembly is the basic policy-making branch of the territory’s local government, known as the Commonwealth. In the Congress, it is regarded as the primary branch that represents the territory’s people. Such a resolution would presumably be supported by Puerto Rico’s official representative to the federal government -- who has a seat in the U.S. House -- Resident Commissioner Luis Fortuno (statehood/R).

McClintock, statehood party president and Senator Pedro Rossello, Senate federal affairs committee chairman Jose Garriga Pico, and other Puerto Rico legislators were in Washington to attend a meeting of the National Conference of State Legislatures, an increasingly powerful lobby in Washington.

Co-Chair of Bush Puerto Rico Status Task Force Resigns

The Justice Department’s Co-Chair of the President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status plans to leave his position soon, according to a Justice Department source.

Deputy Assistant Attorney General Noel Francisco reportedly plans to enter the private practice of law.

Francisco is one of two task force co-chairs -- the two key members of the task force. The other co-chair is President Bush’s Director of Intergovernmental Affairs, Ruben Barrales.

Barrales has been the lead co-chair on the overall handling of the issue but the pivotal judgments on the issue’s critical legal questions have been guided by Francisco. The lawyer served as an Associate Counsel to President Bush under now Attorney General and then Counsel to the President Alberto Gonzalez, before assuming his present position.

The main issue in Puerto Rico’s status debate is whether the future governing arrangement proposed by the "commonwealth" party under now Governor Acevedo’s leadership is an option. The main question about this proposal is whether it is compatible with the Constitution and other basic policies of the United States. The Clinton Administration found it not to be. The Bush Administration has not answered the question.

Francisco is a Deputy in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel. This office is the federal executive branch’s top authority on legal questions and would guide the answer to the question. The Attorney General, the Counsel to the President, and other legal officials regard Francisco’s office as the ultimate legal experts in the administration.

News of Francisco’s impending departure came along with reports of lead Task Force Co-Chair Barrales making another visit to Puerto Rico.

Acevedo Aide Focuses on National Program Funding

The head of Governor Acevedo’s offices in the States this week announced that he would lobby the Congress against President Bush’s proposals to cut funding for three national programs.

Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration Director Eduardo Bhatia said that he would work against Bush’s proposals to reduce funding for: the Manufacturing Extension Partnership, a small program providing technical assistance to small manufacturers; the Airport Improvements Program; and the U.S. Army’s Corps of Engineers, which conducts flood control and similar projects.

Bhatia did not explain how he thought he could influence the congressional debate on the national proposals.

Nor did he explain whether he would start his lobbying through Puerto Rico’s representative in the Congress -- who serves on the House committee with jurisdiction over the two largest of the three programs.

Resident Commissioner Fortuno is a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which has jurisdiction over the Corps of Engineers and the Airport Improvement Program. Fortuno is also a member of the Committee’s subcommittee with jurisdiction over the Corps of Engineers: Water Resources and the Environment.

Corps of Engineers funding may be a focus for Bhatia since Acevedo failed to obtain much of the funding that Bush budgets proposed for Corps projects in Puerto Rico while he was Fortuno’s predecessor.

Acevedo Senate Ally Lott Eyeing Comeback

Governor Acevedo’s closest ally in the U.S. Senate may be down but he is not out.

Trent Lott (R-MS) was deposed as the Senate‘s Majority Leader in December 2002 when he made comments interpreted as suggesting that the country would have been better off if racial segregation policies had been maintained in the South.

Efforts by then Senate Majority Whip Don Nickles (R-OK) and President Bush’s chief political advisor, Karl Rove, led to Lott’s replacement by Senator Bill Frist (R-TN).

Lott was given the consolation prize of the chairmanship of the Senate’s Rules and Administration Committee, which primarily handles administrative rather than policy matters.

Lott is reportedly ingratiating himself with Republican senators, eyeing the Majority Whip’s job -- which primarily rallies votes for bills.

The job could open up if Senate Republican Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (R-PA) loses what is expected to be a close re-election race next year. If he is re-elected, Santorum -- who has been helpful on Puerto Rico issues -- is in line to succeed Mitch McConnell (R-KY) as Whip. McConnell, in turn, is widely expected to replace Frist, who has said he will not run for another term in the Senate.

Lott also has to be re-elected next year. But he is not expected to face a tough challenge. He has been a zealous and prodigious advocate of federal funding for his relatively poor state.

At Acevedo’s request, Lott was the Senate’s "Dr. No" on Puerto Rico status legislation between 1998 and 2000. In 1998, he refused to schedule a vote on a bill that would have enabled Puerto Ricans to choose the territory’s future political status, although it had substantial Republican as well as Democratic support.

Lott had to back down, though, after he opposed a subsequent resolution pledging to consider a Puerto Rican choice of a new status which Acevedo also opposed. Democrats threatened to force a public debate in the full Senate on the resolution by offering it as an amendment to any bill brought before the body. Lott knew that Acevedo’s main objection to the resolution -- that Puerto Ricans are incompatible with other U.S. citizens because of their Spanish culture and, therefore, statehood should not even be an option for Puerto Rico -- could hurt Republicans in an election year.

Lott also failed to deliver on Acevedo’s request that he block legislation proposed by President Clinton in 2000 that appropriated funds for a Puerto Rican status choice. Although Lott initially held up the legislation, he gave up when Clinton held up approval of legislation funding several major departments of the government until Lott relented. Additionally, Lott was pressed by a Republican member of the Congress who had large number of constituents whose heritage was Spanish. (Acevedo and Governor Sila Calderon ("commonwealth/no national party), however, succeeded in preventing implementation of the law in 2001.)

Lott reportedly was successful in opposing another Clinton initiative for Puerto Rico in 2000. This legislation would have closed half the gap between payments for in-patient hospital services in Puerto Rico and payments everywhere else in the country. It was alleged that Lott opposed the greater equality for Puerto Rico hospitals at the request of Acevedo as the "commonwealth" party’s resident commissioner candidate and running-mate for governor Calderon.

The connection to Lott of both Acevedo and Calderon is lobbyist Charlie Black, the lead federal lobbyist for both. Lott is said to have greater influence with Lott than with the Bush White House – his primary assignment under Acevedo as well as Calderon.

The "Washington Update" appears weekly.

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