WASHINGTON — Congress will hold hearings on bills that would extend statehood to the nation’s capital and a U.S. territory.
The push to recognize Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico as states with equal representation in government is decades old. A bill admitting the District as a state passed the House in the last Congress but was not heard in the Senate.
Rep. Darren Soto, D-Fla., last month introduced legislation for Puerto Rico statehood, the Orlando Sentinel reported. Residents of Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, are U.S. citizens but voters there cannot vote for president and are not represented by a voting member of Congress.
Congress is expected to vote on statehood next week. On Wednesday, Rep. Raul M. Grijalva, D-Ariz., will lead a Natural Resources Committee hearing to consider two different bills addressing Puerto Rico’s future, according to a March press release.
The bill for D.C. statehood
Washington is governed by a city council and represented by a nonvoting delegate in Congress, but it is still subject to congressional oversight, according to the council’s official website.
Introduced by Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., H.R. 51 provides for the district’s admission into the Union, “on equal footing with the other states.”
“H.R. 51, which would admit D.C. as the state of Washington, Douglass Commonwealth, will give residents ‘equal representation’ in both houses of Congress and ensure Congress will ‘never again interfere’ in D.C.’s local laws and governing,” Holmes Norton said during a press conference last year.
A bill to make the District a state passed for the first time in Congress in January 2020, but the GOP-controlled Senate did not bring up the matter for a vote.
The issue of statehood resurfaced after the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol building by supporters of former President Donald Trump. Mayor Muriel Bowser called on Congress to grant statehood to Washington. The mayor cannot deploy D.C.’s National Guard troops because authority over the Guard forces lies with the president, secretary of Defense and secretary of the Army.
“Arguing that Washingtonians must remain disenfranchised to protect the interests of the federal government is dangerous, outdated and downright insulting,” Bowser said during a March hearing to decide H.R. 51 in Congress.
Some Republicans view Democrats’ advocacy for statehood as a calculated move. Rep. James Comer, R-Tenn., called the bill “a key part of the radical leftist agenda to reshape America, along with the Green New Deal, defunding the police and packing the U.S. Supreme Court.”
Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., suggested during a March hearing that “D.C. is a pawn being used by congressional Democrats to gain power,” after Bowser confirmed that D.C. was “more than slightly Democratic.”
Two approaches to Puerto Rico and statehood
Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory with its own governor, House of Representatives and Senate, according to the State Department. Residents are U.S. citizens but are not granted a voting representative in Congress and cannot vote for president.
The matter of statehood was considered three times between 1967 and 1998, the Pacific Daily News reported, with the majority choosing to retain Puerto Rico’s status as a commonwealth, or a self-governing state, without an independent existence.
Soto introduced his bill to admit Puerto Rico as a state, H.R. 1522, after a majority of Puerto Rican voters responded “yes” in a November referendum, according to Pacific Daily News.
“The ballot language was simple — statehood yes or no. And Puerto Rican voters by a majority of 52.52% voted yes,” Soto said during a press conference to introduce the Puerto Rico Statehood Admission Act.
“We hear pleas of equality from our fellow Americans back on the island,” he continued. “And we must recognize that a majority has asked us for statehood, and we must respect it.”
Soto cited an economic recession, several natural disasters and the coronavirus pandemic as reasons for Puerto Ricans’ renewed interest in statehood.
While Soto’s bill calls for statehood, Rep. Nydia Velázquez, D-N.Y., wants Congress to ratify Puerto Rico’s new status as determined by its residents.
“Over a century ago, the United States invaded Puerto Rico. And ever since the U.S. has pursued its own colonial rule,” Velázquez said in a statement. “While many may disagree about the future of Puerto Rico’s status, we must recognize that the decision should come from those who will be impacted most: the people of Puerto Rico.”
The Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act — first introduced in 2007 — would establish a convention of elected delegates and federal officials to decide the territory’s status, according to a March 18 press release by Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J. The bill was reintroduced in March by Menendez, Velázquez and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y.
“This is the most inclusive approach to addressing the long-overdue question of Puerto Rico’s political status, but most importantly, it offers the people of Puerto Rico a legitimate and democratic process to determine their own future,” Menendez said.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. decried the notion of granting statehood to Puerto Rico, according to a transcript of a September interview with the “Guy Benson Show.”
“And here’s what they’re going to do after they change the filibuster: They’re going to admit the District [of Columbia] as a state. They’re going to admit Puerto Rico as a state,” McConnell said of Senate Democrats.
“If I’m the majority leader, we’re not going to have two new states, we’re not going to pack the courts, and we’re going to do everything we can to prevent them from completely reversing the tax reform act of 2017,” he continued.
Then-Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., warned Republicans would permanently lose the Senate if D.C. and Puerto Rico became states during an Aug. 11 interview with NBC News.
“They’re going to make D.C. & Puerto Rico a state and get four new Democrat senators. We’d never get the Senate back again,” said McSally, who was appointed to her seat and lost a special election in November.