The House voted Thursday to give Puerto Rico a nonbinding vote on its status, marking the beginning of a process that could eventually lead to a 51st state.
The bill sets up a two-vote process. Puerto Ricans would first vote on whether to change commonwealth status and, if so, a second vote would be held at a later date on whether to request Congress grant statehood.
"It is time for this Congress to hear from the people of Puerto Rico," said Pedro R. Pierluisi, Puerto Rico's delegate to Congress and a Democrat, who led the fight on the bill, which passed on a bipartisan vote of 223-169. The bill's supporters broke into applause on the House floor when the tally was announced.
But the bill passed only after opponents won a change that allows a second vote to include the option to keep the current commonwealth status as one of four choices on the ballot. The other three would be statehood, full independence, the current status, or sovereignty that includes some sort of association with the U.S.
The plebiscites are nonbinding, and Congress would still have final say over any changes to the island's status. It would take a majority vote and the president's signature to grant statehood.
Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens and can, for example, run for president. But those who live on the island don't pay federal income taxes, they don't vote for president, and their delegate to Congress, Mr. Pierluisi, does not have a vote on the floor.
They are also treated differently on other matters, such as not gaining the same sort of guaranteed coverage and subsidies that were provided in the new health care law.
Since being established as a commonwealth in 1952, Puerto Rico has voted three times on statehood, with votes failing in 1967, 1993 and 1998. The 1998 vote in favor of statehood was 47 percent, while "none of the above," the choice for remaining a commonwealth, earned 50 percent.
Polling taken within the past year suggests support for statehood still hovers near 50 percent.
Opposition to the bill came from various quarters.
Some Republicans worried that the plebiscites would lead to statehood and the Spanish-speaking territory would deal a blow to efforts to make English the official language of the U.S. Other opponents feared the costs of adding a 51st state, should that option prevail.
But the biggest threat to the bill came from a bipartisan group that said the original two-tier structure of the Puerto Ricans' vote was designed to ensure statehood won.
As originally written, the bill also called for a vote on whether to change the island's status. But if that won, the second vote would only include "change" options - independence, statehood or sovereigh association.
Opponents said the original process almost guaranteed that statehood would win.
"It's the only result you can possibly expect. The deck is stacked, we all know," said Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, the Illinois Democrat who led opposition to the bill and whose parents were from Puerto Rico.
He also blamed his own party leaders for blocking many of the amendments he had tried to offer on the floor and compared his party's leadership unfavorably to Republicans, who in 1998, the last time Congress considered the issue, allowed for a much more free-wheeling debate.
Those opponents managed to put the commonwealth option back in to the second plebiscite question, winning that amendment 223-179.
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