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Puerto Rico governor: "Congress is morally obligated to respond" to island's statehood vote

Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Pierluisi told "Axios on HBO" that "Congress is morally obligated to respond" to the island's recent vote in support of statehood, and said he expects a bill to be introduced in the House by mid-March.

Why it matters: Although statehood has been discussed for years, advocates say it is more likely now because Democrats control the House, Senate and White House — and because President Biden has publicly supported it.

  • Pierluisi campaigned on statehood for Puerto Rico along with other issues, like getting the coronavirus pandemic under control and lifting the U.S. territory out of its financial crisis.

What he's saying: While the vote for statehood was a narrow one (52% support to 47% against), the governor told "Axios on HBO" it's the best way for Puerto Ricans to receive equal treatment as Americans citizens.

  • "We need a game changer in Puerto Rico. And one game changer would be that we get equal treatment in key federal programs," Pierluisi said, citing programs like Medicaid and the Earned Income Tax Credit, which aren't available to those living in the U.S. territory.
  • People who live in Puerto Rico don't have representatives in Congress with full voting power, and they cannot vote for the U.S. president.
  • "Statehood is not a panacea," Pierluisi said. "Of course we have to do better. But there's no question that having two senators and four representatives in Congress batting for us when needed would make a difference."

Reality check: Congress isn't obligated to take up the issue of statehood for Puerto Rico.

  • And former President Trump's charges of corruption in its leadership further highlighted Puerto Rico's history of managing federal aid, particularly after Hurricane Maria, several earthquakes, and a historic bankruptcy.
  • While Pierluisi said Trump's worries about Puerto Rico's corruption were overblown, his pitch for why the U.S. should take this up is simple: "The U.S. could be expanding by admitting Puerto Rico into the union. It would be telling the world that it is embracing diversity because this would be a truly, completely Hispanic state."

The other side: Those against statehood instead advocate for independence or self-determination, as proposed last year in a bill by Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Nina Velazquez, both Democratic Puerto Rican representatives of New York.

  • And some Republicans argue that they believe all of Puerto Rico's representatives in Congress would be Democrats if they're admitted as the 51st state.
  • Pierluisi says he believes Puerto Rico would be a swing state with a "mixed" congressional delegation, though it "would probably lean Democratic."
  • At the same time that advocates for Puerto Rico's statehood believe now is their best chance to achieve it, many are also pushing for D.C. to become a state with full and equal representation in Congress.
  • "I don't want to compete with D.C. I'm all for D.C. statehood," Pierluisi said. "So I just want the star [on the American flag]. I don't care about the number. So long as it happens and it happens soon, I'll be more than pleased."

Go deeper ... Puerto Rico statehood: What you need to know

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