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Senate Plebiscite Hearing August 1st

The postponed U.S. Senate committee hearing on Puerto Rico’s status plebiscite held along with the territory’s general elections last November  will be held August 1st.

The hearing will focus on the Obama Administration’s response to the plebiscite as well as on the vote itself.

Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) had originally invited the Obama Administration and Puerto Rico’s three political parties to testify June 11th.  But the hearing was postponed due to a death in the family of the Committee’s senior Republican Lisa Murkowski (Alaska).

It is still undetermined whether the Obama Administration will provide a witness for the hearing.  Its lead official on the issue, White House Director of Intergovernmental Affairs David Agnew, is not expected to testify because the President’s staff rarely do so.

Agnew’s Co-Chair of the President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status, Acting Associate Attorney General Tony West, will not be available unless he is confirmed for the Associate AG job by that time — which is said to be unlikely.  Nominees under consideration by the Senate also rarely testify in congressional hearings.

The presidents of Puerto Rico’s three political parties — Gov. Alejandro García Padilla of the “commonwealth” party, representative to the Federal government Pedro Pierluisi of the statehood party, and Independence Party leader Rubén Berríos Martinez — are expected to appear, however.

A spokesperson for the option of nationhood in a free (non-binding) association with the U.S., which obtained a third of the vote in the plebiscite, has not yet been invited.

Although Puerto Rico is often popularly called a “commonwealth”, it is actually a territory according to all three branches of the Federal government. The “commonwealth” party contends that it is not. So, it also does not appear that there will be an advocate for the islands’ current status, which got 46% of the vote in the plebiscite, in the hearing.

The plebiscite rejected the islands’ current status by a vote of 55% to 46%.  It choose statehood among the possible alternatives by 61.2%.  The other alternatives, nationhood in a non-binding association with the U.S. and independence, obtained 33.34% and 5.49% respectively.

The “commonwealth” party disputes the plebiscite.  One objection is that it did not include the party’s proposal for Puerto Rico’s status: an unprecedented governing arrangement that Federal officials say is impossible. The arrangement would be permanently binding on the U.S. and give the insular government the powers to veto the application of Federal laws and court jurisdiction and to enter into international agreements and organizations as if Puerto Rico were a sovereign nation. At the same time, it would give the insular government a new Federal subsidy and continue the grant of citizenship to individuals born in Puerto Rico and current Federal assistance to Puerto Ricans.

Gov. Garcia and ‘commonwealthers’ in the legislature also dispute the plebiscite results saying that the ballots of people who didn’t vote on the plebiscite questions should be counted — contrary to Puerto Rican law and the determination of the Elections Commission.  According to the commonwealthers, the current status, for which they urged votes, was rejected by 51.7% instead of 54%, and statehood won 44.4% of the vote instead of 61.2%.

A spokesman for President Obama, however, said that the plebiscite demonstrated that Puerto Ricans want to resolve the question of the territory’s ultimate status, a majority of the vote was for statehood as the alternative to the current status, and the Obama Administration would work with Congress on the issue.

The Obama Administration has also responded to the plebiscite by proposing legislation for another plebiscite. Under the U.S. Justice Department proposal, the Federal government would provide $2.5 million for a vote on options proposed by Puerto Rico’s Elections Commission found by the U.S. attorney general to not conflict with the Constitution, laws, and policies of the U.S.

This would exclude the “commonwealth” party’s proposals for the territory’s status.

The Obama Administration proposal recognized that Gov. Garcia and the Puerto Rico legislative majority dispute the results of the plebiscite. The White House feared that their opposition would cause Congress to not act on the plebiscite.  Presidential aides reasoned that a plebiscite under Federal auspices could not be disputed with any credibility by ‘commonwealthers.’

Resident Commissioner Pierluisi, who serves in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he can only vote in committees of which he is a member, and 86 other House members have sponsored a bill that also recognizes the results of the plebiscite. It would require the president to submit legislation to enable Puerto Rico to become a State after a phase in of equal treatment in Federal tax and program laws if Puerto Ricans confirm their desire for statehood in another vote. The bill would also commit the Congress to pass statehood transition legislation.

The Senate committee’s House counterpart committee has also said that it will hold a hearing on the plebiscite.  But it is waiting for a Government Accountability Office report on the budgetary impact of treating Puerto Rico equally in Federal laws before scheduling the hearing.



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