The House on Thursday took up 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.
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 three options: statehood, independence and sovereignty in association with the United States. Congress would have to vote on whether Puerto Rico becomes a state.
Pedro Pierluisi, Puerto Rico's non-voting 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 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.
Opposition to the House bill included Republican concerns that it would set Puerto Rico, where Spanish, as well as English, is the official language, on the road to statehood. 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.
Associated Press writer Ann Sanner contributed to this report.
The bill is H.R. 2499
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