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Senate Plebiscite Hearing Delayed

The U.S. Senate committee responsible for the status of the U.S. territories is delaying its hearing on Puerto Rico’s political status plebiscite last November.

The hearing had been scheduled for June 11. No new date has been set but a senior aide to the committee said that the hearing would probably be held in mid or late July.

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 invited the Obama Administration and Puerto Rico’s three political parties to testify June 11.

One problem with the June 11 date was that the Obama Administration’s preferred witness, President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status Co-Chair and Acting Associate Attorney General Tony West, was not available. West could not testify because his name is before the Senate for confirmation as Associate Attorney General. Nominees for Senate-confirmed jobs are normally not allowed to appear in congressional hearings other than on their confirmation.

Puerto Rico’s three parties were expected to be represented by their leaders: Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla of the “commonwealth” party; Resident Commissioner in the U.S. Pedro Pierluisi of the statehood party; and former Senator Ruben Berrios of the Independence Party.

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, was not 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 “commonwealth” party advocates an unprecedented governing arrangement for the islands that Federal officials say is impossible. It would be permanently binding on the U.S. and give the insular government an additional subsidy and 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 continue the grant of citizenship to individuals born in Puerto Rico and current Federal assistance to Puerto Ricans.

A spokesman for President Obama 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 non-territory definition of the current status as well as its proposed new “commonwealth status.”

The Obama Administration proposed an additional plebiscite to confirm last November’s self-determination decisions of Puerto Ricans because Gov. Garcia and the Puerto Rico legislative majority narrowly elected to office at the time of last November’s plebiscite dispute the vote.

The White House feared that this would prevent action in Congress on the plebiscite. It reasoned that a plebiscite under Federal auspices could not be disputed with any credibility by ‘commonwealthers.’

The plebiscite rejected Puerto Rico’s current status by 54% and chose statehood as the alternative by 61.2%.

The Governor and ‘commonwealthers’ in the legislature contend that the status option for which they urged votes, the current status, was rejected by 51.7% instead of 54%, and that statehood won 44.4% of the vote instead of 61.2%.

The plebiscite results were determined by the Puerto Rico Elections Commission with the support of its “commonwealth” party representative. But Garcia and his legislature allies argue that Commission should have included ‘votes’ not cast in the percentage results contrary to the law for the plebiscite, Puerto Rico election law, and general election practice.

Res. Comm. Pierluisi, who serves in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he can only vote in committees of which he is a member, and 62 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. Puerto Ricans confirming their desire for statehood in a referendum would trigger the submission. The bill would also commit the Congress to pass statehood transition legislation.

The Senate committee’s House counterpart committeenhas also said that it will hold a hearing on the plebiscite but no plans for its hearing are known yet.

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