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Puerto Rico’s long-shot bid to become the 51st U.S. state got a big boost Friday when House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah), whose committee oversees the commonwealth, endorsed the effort.
"I want to be very clear: I’m very supportive of Puerto Rico statehood," Bishop said at a press conference in San Juan.
Bishop’s backing will increase the momentum for a renewed political push for a historic change to the island’s status as the largest population of nonvoting citizens in the U.S. But it also comes with caveats.
The Utah Republican has said he plans to leave Congress in 2020 since he would lose his committee chairmanship due to term limits even if Republicans retain control of the House. He also says he wants Puerto Rico to recover from the longer-term economic issues that have plagued the U.S. territory for the last decade.
The commonwealth has been in recession for more than a decade and filed for bankruptcy-like protection last year from creditors, who are owed more than $70 billion.
Bishop stressed that “preconditions” around economic recovery would have to be met before statehood could move forward. These include cooperation from Puerto Rico’s elected leadership with the federal oversight board put in place by Congress to make unpopular spending cuts.
Still, Friday’s announcement comes as a boon for Rep. Jenniffer Gonzalez-Colon, the commonwealth’s nonvoting delegate in Congress and a major statehood supporter.
As part of the push, Gonzalez-Colon will sponsor legislation that would create a path to statehood, which Bishop committed to bring up for a vote before his panel. The two also announced a hearing over the summer on the oversight board, which recently approved a new debt crisis recovery plan that has drawn furious opposition from commonwealth officials.
Gonzalez-Colon, the highest-profile elected Republican in Puerto Rico, is a member of Bishop’s committee and will likely face a tough reelection campaign due to frustration over the island’s tortuous recovery from last fall’s Hurricanes Irma and Maria, which includes a massive electrical grid repair.
Despite added momentum, the statehood drive faces a steep uphill climb. The last time Congress considered the issue, in 2010, Puerto Rico’s then-Republican governor, Luis Fortuno, successfully lobbied more than 50 GOP co-sponsors of a resolution in the House that would give Puerto Rico a potential path to statehood.
Though the resolution passed a then-Democratic-controlled House, Republicans – including several co-sponsors of the resolution – voted against the measure partly out of concern that Puerto Rico would only elect Democrats to Congress.
The Trump administration may also oppose the effort. Last year, the Justice Department rejected ballot language for a Puerto Rico statehood referendum despite lobbying from the current governor, Ricardo Rossello. Bishop also noted during Friday’s press conference that it might be difficult for statehood legislation to navigate the U.S. Senate.
But Bishop, a well-regarded conservative in the House Republican Conference, lends credibility to this new effort, which will include the legislation to be introduced by Gonzalez-Colon.
House Natural Resources spokesperson Kristina Baum said, “There is a consensus on a bipartisan framework, and once legislation is ready we’re committed to moving that framework through committee.”
Statehood remains a political touchstone in Puerto Rico, where the two major local political parties are sharply divided on the issue. Rossello pushed for the referendum on the subject nearly a year ago that his opponents boycotted, in part over complaints about what they saw as a ballot that favored statehood over the current status.
Carlos Mercader, director of the Puerto Rico federal affairs office, praised Bishop in a Spanish-language statement, calling his support “positive for the island and necessary for the decolonization process.”