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House Gives Go-Ahead to Puerto Rico Vote on Status

The House on Thursday addressed the political future of Puerto Rico for the first time in 12 years, passing a bill that could set the stage for the island to become the 51st state.

The bill’s chances in the Senate are unclear — Puerto Rico’s Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi (D) recently admitted that it would be an “uphill battle” if the bill passed the House by a slim margin. The bill cleared the House by a significant, though not overwhelming, 223-169 vote.

The original version of the bill would set up a two-step plebiscite in Puerto Rico: The first vote would ask voters whether the territory should keep its current political status or have a different political status. If a majority chose the latter, a second plebiscite would be held with three choices: independence, “sovereignty in association with the United States” or statehood.

However, several amendments adopted on the floor tweaked to the bill. One introduced by Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) would allow voters, in the second plebiscite, to choose the current commonwealth arrangement. Another, from Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), requires the Puerto Rico State Elections Commission to inform voters that the island must follow the United States’ official language requirements if it continues as a commonwealth or becomes a state.

Supporters called the bill a straightforward, unbiased effort to resolve the status of an island obtained by the United States in the Spanish-American War. Opponents suggested it was pushed through without sufficient debate.

“I feel this is a rushed process,” Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) said, adding that Democrats disallowed his amendment requiring two-thirds of voters to support a change in the political status before administering the second plebiscite. “You don’t want to get married to anyone who is only 51 percent sure.”

Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), who supported the measure, asked Members to not “taint” the vote with predictions on the future of Puerto Rico’s status. The bill only sanctions a nonbinding survey; it does not make any provisions for changes in its political status.

“This will be debated when and if Puerto Rico asks,” he said. “Give Puerto Rico its chance today.”

Puerto Rico’s officials have pushed similar bills for years. Most of the island’s politicians are split into two camps: those who want an “enhanced commonwealth” with more political autonomy and those who want statehood. Historically, statehood supporters have backed bills similar to the one that passed Thursday. Commonwealth supporters have instead pushed for a bill convening a constitutional convention.

Puerto Rican Members of Congress are also split on the issue. Rep. José Serrano (D-N.Y.), for example, has long supported a federally sanctioned plebiscite as outlined in the bill passed Thursday, while Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.) “strongly opposes” it.

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