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AP Online

Statehood Proponents Make A New Run On Washington


April 3, 1999
Copyright © 1999 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) - When Puerto Ricans rejected a proposal last year to become the 51st U.S. state - the second statehood setback in six years - it looked like the century-long fight would stop for many years to come.

But Puerto Rico 's "statehooders" are still in the ring.

Through renewed lobbying, fund-raising and involvement in Vice President Al Gore's presidential campaign, the movement led by Gov. Pedro Rossello is raising the issue again.

"It's obvious that Rossello is trying to convince the leadership of the Congress to hold another plebiscite ," said Anibal Acevedo Vila, head of the rival Popular Democratic Party.

It's sure to be another tough sell in Washington, where skepticism is strong about letting a Spanish-speaking island that is poorer than every state join the union. Republicans, especially, fear a Puerto Rican state would send mainly Democrats - two Senators and up to seven representatives - to Capitol Hill.

So far, the Senate has scheduled hearings for May 6 to examine the result of December's nonbinding referendum , and President Clinton has issued a favorable letter on "the need to further clarify" the island's political status.

Puerto Rico has been a U.S. territory since the United States wrested it from Spain during the 1898 Spanish-American War.

Some Puerto Ricans see the "commonwealth" arrangement set up in 1952 as optimal: the island's 3.8 million residents are U.S. citizens, it receives more than $10 billion in federal funds annually and has some trappings of independence, like its own Olympic team. Many fear statehood would mean not only federal taxes but imposed English as well.

Statehood supporters say Puerto Ricans are second-class U.S. citizens, unable to vote for the president and Congress that can send them to war.

Rossello's New Progressive Party has argued that the United States is a "nation of nations" and a Spanish-speaking state would not be so unusual.

Last year the House passed, by a single vote, a bill allowing a Puerto Rico statehood referendum. The bill died in the Senate. Rossello held a vote anyway - but the gamble didn't pay off. Statehood drew 46 percent of the vote compared with 52 percent for "none of the above" - an option backed by supporters of the status quo who disagreed with the way it was defined on the ballot.

The referendum exhausted the party's treasury - it was $3.2 million in debt by January - but not its leaders, who began trips to Washington last month to paint the vote as inconclusive.

President Clinton met with Rossello and issued a statement saying he is "strongly committed to enable the people of the islands to choose Puerto Rico 's status.... I recognize the need to further clarify these options."

Gore recently named Rossello to head his primary campaign on the island and serve as point man for mainland Hispanics - sparking speculation the Yale- and Harvard-educated pediatrician might be tapped for a Gore Cabinet post.

Rossello also met last month with Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, House Speaker Dennis Hastert and other Congressional leaders to push statehood.

Days later, the chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Republican Frank Murkowski, announced the hearings to examine the referendum results. He was vague on the prospect of another vote.

"We should provide a forum for our fellow citizens in the territories, when they have taken the initiative, to express their views," he said.

On Tuesday, Puerto Rico 's non-voting delegate in Congress, Carlos Romero Barcelo, circulated a letter signed by 15 Hispanic members of Congress calling for "equality" in federal funding for Puerto Rico.

Only two refused to sign, anti- statehood Democrats Luis Gutierrez of Illinois and Nydia Velazquez of New York; they called it a prelude to more demands for statehood.

Statehood opponents fear the Rossello administration may support new efforts to impose federal taxes on Puerto Rico to eliminate the issue as a drawback to statehood.

Murkowski's counterpart in the House, Republican Don Young of Alaska, suggested to the Washington Times last week that Puerto Ricans be required to pay taxes.

"(Young) doesn't feel the U.S. taxpayer should continue indefinitely subsidizing Puerto Rico ," said Manase Mansur, Young's adviser on Puerto Rican affairs.

Statehood opponents say Young - who wrote the binding referendum bill that passed the House last year - wanted to punish Puerto Ricans for voting down statehood.

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