Washington D.C. - Although the U.S. Senate may remain in Republican hands in January, Joe Biden will have the executive power, the White House megaphone, and the support of the congressional Democratic leadership to push for his agenda for Puerto Rico.
The chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, Democrat Raúl Grijalva (Arizona), said the first line of action on the island that Biden will have is a cross-agency Puerto Rico working group he has promised to reactivate.
“That group should be revitalized and empowered,” said Grijalva, in an interview with El Nuevo Día, while criticizing that this working group remained inactive under the Donald Trump administration.
Former Vice President Biden was declared President-elect on Saturday, in a tight election that left Democrats again -with fewer seats- with the majority in the House.
Although two seats will go to run-off elections in Georgia on January 5, the Senate may remain under Republican control. Democrats would have to win both races to achieve 50-50 ties and have Vice President-elect Kamala Harris as the swing vote.
As a candidate for the White House, former Vice President Biden committed to reviving the federal working group federal for Puerto Rico “which will report directly to the President to make sure Puerto Rico has the resources and technical assistance it needs not only to recover but also to prosper”.
The person Biden appoints to head that working group and those Latinos he includes in his Cabinet will be key to moving that agenda forward, a Democratic source said.
Those close to Biden warn that in the face of a divided Congress, the next President will have to rely on executive measures to bring changes to the Trump era. Initiatives to accelerate the release of funds promised to the island after Hurricane María may be part of those first actions.
Biden´s proposals include working for parity in Medicaid, Medicare, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), and nutrition assistance. He also committed to easing the austerity measures imposed by the Fiscal Board overseeing the island’s public finances, to promote a debt audit, the cancellation of illegally issued debt, and to protect the budget of the University of Puerto Rico (UPR).
Obstacles to Biden’s Agenda
Biden’s agenda will face obstacles in a Republican Senate both regarding parity in federal programs and any effort seeking to amend PROMESA Act.
Senate Republican majority leader, Mitch McConnell, “has made it clear that his number one priority in Puerto Rico is to restructure the territorial debt using (PPROMESA),” said Javier Ortiz, a Republican businessman who collaborated with Trump’s campaign and was part of his transition committee.
Before last Tuesday’s status referendum in Puerto Rico, McConnell had warned that while he controls the Senate agenda he will not give way to any proposal to turn the island or Washington D.C. into U.S. states. He indicated that Democrats' interest in that issue is to increase their seats in the Senate and advance a "socialist agenda.
Ortiz does not see an atmosphere in a Republican Senate to give way to bills that would grant federal programs parity to Puerto Rico, without specifying how to fund their cost. “I don’t see many changes in that,” he said.
He also recalled that even though Biden promised to accelerate the release of relief funds, Congress approved, in a bipartisan manner, restrictions and controls regarding reconstruction funds, after Hurricane María.
Some federal agencies such as the Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and Education Departments have imposed other administrative controls as well. “As we have all seen in the media just before and after the elections, corruption charges continue to plague the daily lives of Puerto Rico’s residents. Puerto Rico’s leaders will have to continue negotiating with whoever is President on January 20, 2021, and Congress to show that they can eradicate the squandering of funds, fraud, and abuse,” added Ortiz, who believes Biden’s election will end up being decided in the U.S. Supreme Court.
Puerto Rican Democratic Representative Darren Soto (Florida) said that legislation will be required to achieve President-elect Biden’s goals regarding PROMESA Act, such as the one that Grijalva along with Puerto Rican Democrats in Congress have been pushing seeking to amend the statute. Even under a Biden administration, a majority of Board members (4-3) can be Republican appointees.
Grijalva confirmed that, in 2021, he will insist on a bill to amend PROMESA, seeking to protect the UPR budget, audit the debt, cancel the unsecured debt and bring transparency to the Oversight Board, among other things.
However, he said his advisors will contact the office of Resident Commissioner in Washington Jenniffer González, who before the elections expressed herself in favor of defining the essential services of the government of Puerto Rico, to learn about her proposals.
Although the Senate may once again remain in Republican hands, the Democratic minority, under the current rules that require 60 votes to pass a bill, will still have the power to block Republican measures.
The Island´s Status
As a candidate for the White House, Biden said he will “work with representatives who support each of the status options in Puerto Rico to engage in a fair and binding process to determine their own status.”
Biden - who on a personal level stresses that statehood is the best way to achieve equality within the federal government - will face the status issue after Tuesday’s referendum, that was rejected by the Trump administration and in which statehood reached about 52 percent.
Grijalva said that as chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee he will not interfere with legislation that may be introduced in favor of statehood or the island´s status, but he indicated that gaining Republican support and knowing what the White House thinks will be key to pass such a bill.
With McConnell leading the Senate, the chances of passing a status bill that includes statehood seem limited. Meanwhile, the chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Republican Lisa Murkowski, has not assured that she will reopen that debate but said that if she does she will consider the results of the referendum and the margin of victory for statehood.
Democrat Nydia Velázquez (New York) indicated that without a super-majority in favor of statehood and “the emergence of a multi-party system and the beginning of a political transformation,” “a Status Convention” such as the one proposed by a bill she introduced along with also Democrat Alexandria Ocasio Cortez “is the most inclusive and fair process to decide the future political status of the island.”
For Democrat Soto, if the Senate majority remains in Republican hands, it will be important for Republican Senators Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, both from Florida, to pressure their party’s leadership in favor of the proposal to make Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico the 51st and 52nd states of the United States.
Without specifying a course of action, a Rubio spokeswoman said last week that Puerto Rico made clear its status preference and that the senator "remains committed to creating the conditions in the Senate to make this aspiration a reality.
Soto thinks that a large majority of House Democrats will support statehood for Puerto Rico and that, if faced with the opportunity to vote on the issue, there would be unanimity among his party’s senators. He also said he is convinced that if a bill in favor of the annexation of Puerto Rico reaches the White House, Biden will pass it into law.
Both Soto and Velázquez were members of Biden´s Latino leadership committee.
In September, Biden said he believed that “statehood would be the most effective means of ensuring that residents of Puerto Rico are treated equally,” but that “the people of Puerto Rico must decide,” and the U.S. federal government must respect that decision and act on it.
As a candidate, Biden did not express his position on the November 3 referendum, which the U.S. Department of Justice determined did not comply with federal public policy, because it did not include the other status options and because it seemed to imply that it guaranteed statehood for Puerto Rico.