And The Fight For The Senate Goes On

by John Marino

June 4, 2005
Copyright © 2005 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. As expected, a New Progressive Party general delegates assembly overwhelmingly backed party president Pedro Rosselló to take over the helm of the Senate last Sunday, but the battle for Senate president continues to rage, with Kenneth McClintock showing no signs that he is ready to back down.

About half of the 4,000-plus delegates actually showed up for the vote. Rosselló supporters note that the former governor got 2,100 votes to McClintock’s 51, but critics say when you add in the no-shows, the Rosselló tally was still less than an absolute majority.

Though the NPP assembly apparently has bound senators to abide by the determination of the delegates or face expulsion from the party, Rosselló and party leaders who support him have so far resisted instituting such strong-armed tactics. The assembly also gave Rosselló the right to call a caucus vote on the matter when he deemed appropriate.

Only four senators have publicly backed Rosselló for the Senate top spot, and McClintock has responded by stripping three of those senators from their committee chairmanships, which has sparked criticism from even senators who continue to be loyal to McClintock. Rosselló responded by resigning his chairmanship of a universal health reform committee in protest, and has so far acted and expressed that he will be patient in his pursuit of the Senate leadership post.

Local news reports still have the majority of senators in the McClintock camp with 10 supporters, versus five for Rosselló and two up in the air. Rosselló and his supporters are quietly meeting with senators to convince him that it is best for the party that they support him.

Toa Baja Mayor Aníbal Vega Borges, a veteran lawmaker with a bright future in the party, reckons that Rosselló will eventually win the presidency through quiet persuasion. "Little by little, he will do it," he told reporters a day after the assembly.

But ask Senate Majority Leader Jorge De Castro Font, and he’ll say Rosselló will fail. "He will never be Senate president. Once he gets two or more setbacks, he will just fade away," he said in a newspaper interview.

For much of the general public, including a great many statehooders, the Senate presidency battle is a great shame, and an inexcusable distraction from the very important business of governance – especially at a time of soaring public deficits, crime and economic problems and important public policy decisions at stake. Piggybacked on the House’s poor handling of the Marisara Pont nomination process, which the Supreme Court is slated to decide any time now, it also has given the NPP-controlled Legislature a fat black eye.

NPP Resident Commissioner Luis Fortuño has criticized Rosselló’s drive to wrest the Senate presidency from McClintock, as well as McClintock’s reprisals against senators who now support the former governor in his drive to unseat him. A figure on the rise in the national Republican Party, Fortuño has also chided lawmakers for unnecessarily obstructing the nomination process, saying Gov. Acevedo Vilá’s Cabinet nominees deserve an up or down vote.

But mostly, he’s working in Washington, D.C., showing what a productive lawmaker can get done for Puerto Rico. Fortuño put up a united front with the Acevedo Vilá administration in the fight to save Fort Buchanan. Not only was the fort saved last week, kept off the Pentagon’s base closing list, but Fortuño, with his Republican connections, is largely receiving the most credit for the feat.

Legislation he sponsored to protect the island’s rainforest and to improve Veterans Administration facilities on the island has received key approvals this week. Also this week, he teamed up with U.S. Hispanic lawmakers to sponsor legislation to increase English instruction in Head Start pre-school centers, and introduced legislation to study increasing Coast Guard spending in Puerto Rico. That’s in addition to ongoing efforts to win parity in federal healthcare funding and grant new economic incentives to the island.

Meanwhile, back in San Juan, despite the fratricide within the majority, there are glimmers of such productivity peeking through the smoke rising from the Capitol. NPP lawmakers presented an "alternative budget" to ratings agency analysts this week considering downgrading Puerto Rico’s bond ratings.

The NPP wants to slash $600 million in three areas: services, purchases and operational costs, while it anticipates $470 million more in recurring income. It would avoid some of the scarier of Acevedo Vilá’s proposed taxes, such as lifting the exemptions to the general excise tax. While details are still scant, the presentation created the clearest portrait yet of what the NPP controlled Legislature would propose since Acevedo Vilá presented his budget back in March.

More tellingly, the NPP-controlled Legislature delivered Acevedo Vilá a historic override of a veto this week, the first such time a veto has been overridden since Puerto Ricans began electing their own governors in 1948.

It was a positive development, not so much for its effect in the ongoing power struggle in this term of divided government, but because it struck a blow against the dominance of executive authority in Puerto Rico government. This has been tempered by years of governors enjoying rubber stamp support from legislatures controlled by the parties they preside, as well as by the tradition of popular gubernatorial candidates dragging party lawmakers and mayors into office through the power of their appeal.

It’s worth noting that what the Legislature could not muster to override the veto of status legislation – a few minority votes -- it was able to do so for a resolution ordering the commonwealth’s only public vocational center for the physically disabled be kept open. The relatively broad support required to override a gubernatorial veto will necessitate they be for worthy causes in the future.

The center was slated to be closed under the previous Calderón administration, and Acevedo Vilá sought to downplay the import of the move by saying his administration had determined to keep the center open anyway, explaining his veto over a legal technicality.

More tellingly perhaps, was his appeal to the religious community during a breakfast the day after the override. He asked them to pray for his administration, the Legislature and Puerto Rico – a sure sign the governor has become a bit melodramatic.

"I need your prayers. Puerto Rico needs your prayers so the country can be united and move forward. Puerto Rico needs to revive faith in its institutions, in its leadership and in its actions," he said.

Unfortunately for McClintock, he was present, and reportedly politely clapped following the governor’s appeal. One newspaper showed on its cover a picture of Senate president shaking the governor’s hand at the breakfast, under the photo caption "united in prayer."

That showed him being perhaps too accommodating to the opposition, while his stripping committee chairs from pro-Rosselló senators earlier in the week showed him as perhaps too aggressive with members of his own party.

That’s not quite the image of a "maximum leader" in the NPP that McClintock needs to project these days. .

John Marino, Managing Editor of The San Juan Star, writes the weekly Puerto Rico Report column for the Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached directly at: Marino@coqui.net

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