Both Velázquez, who introduced legislation to bind Congress to a status convention and a referendum on non-territorial alternatives, and Democratic Congressman Darren Soto (Florida), main author of House Bill 1522, which seeks a federal statehood yes-or-no referendum tied to a process for Puerto Rico’s admission as a state, have expressed a willingness to talk about how to move legislation forward.
In a brief conversation they had on Thursday in Congress, Pierluisi said they agreed with Velázquez to sit down and talk on his next trip to Washington D.C.
“We agreed that the next time I return to Washington I will sit down with her to talk about this issue and see if we can reach some type of agreement,” he said, indicating that he appreciates Velázquez, with whom he worked in the U.S. House for eight years when he was Resident Commissioner.
Following the first congressional hearing on Puerto Rico’s political status in six years - held in April to discuss the two status bills - House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raúl Grijalva (D-Arizona) warned, as Senate leaders have emphasized, that there is division in Washington and San Juan over how to move the debate on Puerto Rico-U.S. relations forward.
In the November referendum - statehood: yes or no - 52.5 percent of the island’s voters favored making Puerto Rico a U.S. state.
Grijalva is waiting for an analysis by the U.S. Department of Justice on the constitutionality and legality of the two status bills before calling for a second public hearing.
Pierluisi noted that there were warnings at that hearing - mainly by Columbia University constitutionalist Cristina Ponsa Krus, who supports statehood - that the bill by Velázquez and fellow Puerto Rican Alexandria Ocasio Cortez is constitutionally flawed for wanting to bind a future Congress to the outcome of the status process they are proposing.
“I anticipate that Nydia Velázquez and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez’s bill would have to be significantly amended for it to comply with the U.S. Constitution,” said Pierluisi, who arrived in the federal capital on Wednesday for meetings on status, Medicaid, and manufacturing, among other things, and will return to San Juan on Monday.
The governor, also president of the New Progressive Party (PNP), said, however, that he plans to promote Soto’s House Bill 1522 throughout the congressional session, which runs through December 2022. “On this trip, I am focused on supporting Darren Soto and Jenniffer González’s bill as it is,” he said.
In March, Congresswoman Velázquez stated that she wants to talk with Pierluisi and Commissioner González to explore if there is an opportunity to work together.
“I am open to an agreement seeking a permanent solution,” Soto said last April in an interview with El Nuevo Día, although he made it clear that he considers that the status alternatives for Puerto Rico are statehood, independence, and the current territorial status.
The Velázquez and Ocasio Cortez´s bill has the support of 77 House Democrats. The Senate version, led by Robert Menéndez (N.J.), is supported by eight Democratic and two Republican senators.
Soto and González’s Bill 1522 has the support of 50 Democrats and 15 Republicans, including themselves. In the Senate, the bill is led by Martin Heinrich (New Mexico) and sponsored by three other Democrats.
For Pierluisi, the fact that 10 senators support the bill by Velázquez and Ocasio Cortez -which may be the most significant in decades- has a lot to do with “the influence that Senator” Menéndez has.
Although status legislation is unlikely to pass this Congress, the Puerto Rican government still has available the language of a law of 2014 that would allow the U.S. Department of Justice to examine the legality and constitutionality of status alternatives, as well as the educational campaign, of a referendum to be called on the island.
On two occasions, 2017 and 2020, Puerto Rico’s PNP-controlled government opted to hold referendums without the U.S. Justice Department’s endorsement, which could ensure $2.5 million to help fund an upcoming referendum.