Politics

Senate leader McConnell calls support for Puerto Rico statehood ‘socialist’

‘We’re fighting for the same thing.’ Trump praises McConnell

During a press conference in October 2017, President Donald Trump spoke highly of his relationship with Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky.
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During a press conference in October 2017, President Donald Trump spoke highly of his relationship with Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky.

Mitch McConnell was in the middle of a recent Fox News interview boasting about his new moniker from Democrats as a “grim reaper” for legislation, railing against left-leaning policies like Medicare for all and the Green New Deal.

But the most powerful Republican on Capitol Hill also bashed an issue that Florida Republicans have supported for years: statehood for Puerto Rico.

“I am indeed the grim reaper when it comes to the socialist agenda that they’ve been ginning up over in the House with overwhelming Democratic support,” McConnell said to Fox News host Laura Ingraham. “They’re on their way to doing some additional things in addition to the ones they’ve already done, the Green New Deal, Medicare for all... They plan to make the District of Columbia a state, that would give them two new Democratic senators, Puerto Rico a state, we give them two more Democratic senators. As long as I’m the majority leader of the Senate none of that stuff is going anywhere.”

But Puerto Rico’s representative in Congress, Jenniffer Gonzalez, is a pro-statehood Republican. Gonzalez was a key surrogate for Florida Sen. Rick Scott’s successful U.S. Senate bid, and Scott made Puerto Rico a massive focus of his campaign.

“Leader McConnell needs to remember it’s the GOP that has always supported statehood,’ Gonzalez tweeted. “The Democrats want to create the perception they ‘own’ anything that has to do with Puerto Rico and GOP Leaders should not fall in that trap.”

When asked about McConnell’s comments on Tuesday, Scott said he hadn’t seen them but reiterated his support for statehood.

“I want to see what he said, but I’ve been supportive of statehood,” Scott said. “Here’s what I’ve supported. They had a vote, I think we ought to follow the will.”

Rep. Darren Soto, a Central Florida Democrat who represents the state’s largest Puerto Rican community, said McConnell’s position is solely about maintaining GOP control of the Senate.

“It’s clearly Senate protectionism,” Soto said. “And it overlooks the fact that no one knows what the parties are going to be in Puerto Rico. The resident commissioner is a Republican, the governor is a Democrat. It’s really ignorant to say that.”

Soto introduced a Puerto Rico statehood bill earlier this year. The bill is cosponsored by four Republicans, including the longest-tenured member of Congress, Alaska Rep. Don Young. Soto’s bill is not a part of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s legislative agenda.

“It’s absolutely absurd to call making Puerto Rico a state socialism when by very definition that is democracy,” Soto said.

Three years ago, the national Republican Party agreed with him. Their 2016 platform, agreed to at the convention that saw Donald Trump officially secure the party’s presidential nomination, included a section supporting statehood.

“We support the right of the United States citizens of Puerto Rico to be admitted to the Union as a fully sovereign state,” the platform said. “Once the 2012 local vote for statehood is ratified, Congress should approve an enabling act with terms for Puerto Rico’s future admission as the 51st state of the Union.”

Puerto Rican statehood gained additional visibility after Hurricane Maria knocked out power to the island for months and killed nearly 3,000 people, and some lawmakers blamed a lack of resources and attention on Puerto Rico’s territorial status. The statehood issue remains contentious within Puerto Rico, and Republicans and Democrats who hold elected office there belong to political parties that support any of the three positions for the island’s status: statehood, maintaining the status quo or independence.

Traditionally, Republicans outside Puerto Rico have been more supportive of Puerto Rican statehood than Democrats, who did not include statehood on their 2016 platform. Republican Florida Sen. Marco Rubio is a longtime supporter of statehood, though he acknowledged last year that there is not enough support in the Senate for ratification. Rubio did not immediately respond to a request for comment on McConnell’s remarks.

Puerto Rican Gov. Ricardo Rosselló criticized McConnell for his comment that Puerto Rican statehood would lead to more Democrats in the Senate.

“Civil and voting rights should never be contingent on political views,” Rosselló tweeted. “All Americans deserve equal rights and full Congressional representation — anything less is against the essence of our great nation. If you believe in democracy, support equality for Puerto Rico.”

Soto said McConnell’s comments actually bring more visibility to the statehood movement and could spur more Democrats to sign on to his bill.

“We have admitted many new states since the colonies and to say it’s socialism to admit others, particularly those with minority populations, McConnell is showing his hand with those types of comments.”

And Soto said statehood would have saved lives after Hurricane Maria because the territory would not have to rely on out-of-state politicians to make the case for assistance.

“Two U.S. senators and four members of Congress would have yielded a much swifter recovery with far more resources and would have saved lives,” Soto said. “It took weeks for the critical mass of FEMA personnel to get there, for the ships to get there and for the money to get there.”

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