The House on Thursday approved legislation that could set in motion changes in Puerto Rico's 112-year relationship with the United States, including a transition to statehood or independence. The House bill would give the 4 million residents of the island commonwealth a two-step path to expressing how they envision their political future. It passed 223-169 and now must be considered by the Senate.
Initially, eligible voters, including those born in Puerto Rico but residing in the United States, would vote on whether they wish to keep their current political status or opt for a different direction.
If a majority are in favor of changing the current situation, the Puerto Rican government would be authorized to conduct a second vote and people would choose among four options: statehood, independence, the current commonwealth status or sovereignty in association with the United States. Congress would have to vote on whether Puerto Rico becomes a state.
Pedro Pierluisi, Puerto Rico's nonvoting delegate to the House, said that while the island has had votes on similar issues in the past, Congress has never authorized a process where Puerto Ricans state whether they should remain a U.S. territory or seek a nonterritorial status.
"The American way is to allow people to vote, to express themselves and to tell their elected officials how they feel about their political arrangements," said Puerto Rico Gov. Luis Fortuno at a news conference with Pierluisi. "For 112 years, we haven't had the chance ... to fully participate in one way or another in the decisions that affect our daily lives."
Puerto Rico became a U.S. territory at the end of the Spanish-American War. Those born on the island were granted U.S. citizenship in 1917 and Puerto Rico gained commonwealth status in 1952.
Today, Puerto Ricans serve in the military but can't vote in presidential elections. They do not pay federal income tax on income earned on the island.
In the last referendum, "none of the above" garnered 50 percent of the vote, topping the other options, including statehood at 46.5 percent and independence at 2.5 percent.
Some of those differences were evident among lawmakers of Puerto Rican background. Puerto Rico-born Rep. Nydia Velazquez, D-N.Y., and Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., whose parents were from Puerto Rico, strongly opposed the measure, saying it was designed to push a statehood agenda. "This is the Puerto Rico 51st state bill," said Gutierrez, an independence proponent. "The deck is stacked."
But another Puerto Rico-born lawmaker, Democrat Jose Serrano of New York, backed it. "I support it because for the first time in 112 years the people of Puerto Rico will have an opportunity to express themselves."
Opposition to the House bill included Republican concerns about the consequences of Puerto Rico, where Spanish, as well as English, is the official language, becoming a state. Republicans said Puerto Rico would get some six seats in the House, possibly at the expense of other states, and that statehood would impose further burdens on the federal Treasury.
Republicans, led by Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., unsuccessfully tried to attach a provision that ballots favoring statehood make clear that a Puerto Rican state would adopt English as its official language and abide by Second Amendment gun rights. The proposal was defeated 198-194.
Associated Press writer Ann Sanner contributed to this report.
The bill is H.R. 2499
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