House Passes Bill That Could Pave the Way for Puerto Rican Statehood

WASHINGTON — The House voted on Thursday to allow Puerto Ricans to decide the political future of the territory, the first time the chamber has committed to backing a binding process that could pave the way for Puerto Rico to become the nation’s 51st state or an independent country.

The measure, which has the support of the White House, has little chance of becoming law in the short term. It is all but certain to fall short of the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster in the Senate, where most Republicans are opposed, and there is little time left under this Congress before the G.O.P. takes control of the House in early January, likely burying the effort for at least the next Congress.

But the bipartisan vote — the bill passed 233 to 191 — was a symbolic statement by the House that Puerto Rico’s status as a colonial territory was both untenable and unwanted by many of its voters.

The legislation would establish a binding process for a referendum in Puerto Rico that would allow voters to choose among allowing the territory to become a state, an independent country or a sovereign government aligned with the United States. It would also lay out the processes for implementing the outcome of the vote and establish a campaign to educate voters about their options.

More than a decade after the House last weighed in on the status of Puerto Rico, it was the first time lawmakers voted to require the federal government both to honor the outcome of such a referendum and to ensure its implementation, aides said.

Sixteen Republicans joined 217 Democrats in approving the measure.

“Today’s historic vote is a key step toward ensuring that Puerto Rico’s future is one of its own choosing,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of California, said in a statement. “With the Puerto Rico Status Act, the Democratic House has proudly voted to tear down the vestiges of colonialism.”Puerto Rico has been an American territory since 1898, following the Spanish-American War.

Puerto Ricans often refer to the island as colonized twice, first by Spain and later by the United States. Puerto Rico’s 3.3 million residents are U.S. citizens but do not have voting representation in Congress and cannot vote in presidential elections. They also generally do not pay federal income tax on income earned in Puerto Rico and are not equally eligible for some federal programs.

Puerto Ricans have sought greater self-determination for decades, with the island’s territorial status deeply dividing its people. The three main political parties, which do not neatly align with Democrats and Republicans, are also divided over the question of status: The Puerto Rican Independence Party favors separating from the United States; the New Progressive Party favors statehood, and the Popular Democratic Party favors remaining a U.S. commonwealth.

The island’s status came under renewed scrutiny after Congress wrote a bankruptcy law named Promesa in 2016 that created an unelected federal oversight board to manage Puerto Rico’s bankrupt finances. Puerto Ricans, who refer to the unpopular board as “la junta,” have protested the board’s austerity measures and lack of accountability to people at the ballot box.

Puerto Rico has held six plebiscites on whether it should become a state, most recently in 2020, when 52 percent of voters on the island endorsed the move. None of the plebiscites has been binding, however, and turnout has often been low, amid boycotts by critics who support the status quo or independence.

Though the Republican Party platform, which has not been updated since 2016, supports statehood for Puerto Rico, Republicans in Congress have distanced themselves from that position, fearing that a Puerto Rican state could result in the election of more Democrats — a notion challenged by a recent strain of social conservatism within the island’s politics.

Congress is also unlikely to welcome as a state an island that has among the highest poverty levels in the United States and where most people’s primary language is Spanish.

Jenniffer González-Colón, the resident commissioner of Puerto Rico and its lone representative in Congress, backed a compromise measure among competing plans. A Republican, Ms. González-Colón is a member of the Puerto Rican political party that supports statehood, but acknowledged the “political realities in this Congress” had resulted in the compromise. Gov. Pedro A. Pierluisi, who is also a member of the statehood party and was present in the House for the vote, is a Democrat, underscoring the island’s complicated political allegiances.

“This bill is not perfect, but at least it will advance the issue,” Ms. González-Colón said on the House floor, pointedly reminding her colleagues that because of the island’s territory status, she could not vote on its passage. With passage of the bill, Ms. González-Colón said that the House was “recognizing and making clear that Puerto Rico’s century-old territorial status is the problem and cannot be part of the solution.”

The legislation, hastily scheduled for a vote just a day earlier, is the product of laborious negotiations among factions on Capitol Hill, which had pushed for separate bills that would help relieve Puerto Rico of its territory status.

Representative Steny H. Hoyer, Democrat of Maryland and the majority leader, and Representative Raúl Grijalva of Arizona, the chairman of the Natural Resources Committee, helped broker the agreement among Puerto Rican officials, lawmakers who support statehood for the island and lawmakers who have argued that the United States should back a self-determination process for the island.

“This bill being on the floor today was far from assured,” Mr. Grijalva said on Thursday, noting that changes were still being negotiated about 24 hours before the vote. He added, “I am proud to be discussing a piece of legislation, a proposal today that assists the people of Puerto Rico to directly be involved in determining their political future.”

Representative Nydia M. Velázquez, Democrat of New York and the first Puerto Rican woman to be elected to the House, declared that “the voices of boricuas are now finally being heard” as she listed Puerto Rican women who had climbed the ranks of American government and society and continued to champion the island.

“It is an embarrassment to the United States — the United States that holds itself up as a leader of the free world, that stands up to the imperialist tyrants abroad, while keeping colonies in the Caribbean and the Pacific,” she said. “Congress has the moral obligation to provide the necessary tools to transition to a new, postcolonial order.”

But Power 4 Puerto Rico, a coalition of diaspora organizations, urged lawmakers to vote no, calling the bill in a statement “a Trojan horse” that “offers only a fraction of information masquerading as decolonization and tramples over the right of Puerto Ricans to full transparency and a fair process.”

Several Republicans also opposed the measure, with some lawmakers criticizing the Democratic majority for excluding them from the final days of negotiations and arguing that there were unresolved questions about the role of the United States in helping the island transition to the voters’ chosen outcome.

“Just as we would expect the people of Puerto Rico to deliberate its questions, understand its consequences and accept responsibility for the choice, so should Congress,” said Representative Bruce Westerman of Arkansas, the top Republican of the Natural Resources Committee. He complained of a “hasty and secretive process” that deprived lawmakers of the opportunity to weigh in on the bill.

But Democrats defended the compromise, even as lawmakers like Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a New York Democrat with Puerto Rican heritage, conceded that they found elements of the measure lacking.

“The gains that are made here are a watershed moment,” said Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, who presided over the House vote. She added the bill was “a way point and a steppingstone for the future of our island.”

Emily Cochrane is a reporter in the Washington bureau, covering Congress. She was raised in Miami and graduated from the University of Florida. @ESCochrane

Patricia Mazzei is the Miami bureau chief, covering Florida and Puerto Rico. She writes about breaking news, politics, disasters and the quirks of life in South Florida. She joined The Times in 2017 after a decade at The Miami Herald.

 

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