(April 29) — Puer­to Ricans ought to hold a ref­er­en­dum on whether to keep their island a com­mon­wealth or con­sid­er state­hood, inde­pen­dence or some oth­er sta­tus, the U.S. House vot­ed after an impas­sioned debate today.

The island became a U.S. ter­ri­to­ry in 1898 after the Span­ish-Amer­i­can War. Puer­to Ricans are Amer­i­can cit­i­zens but can­not vote in pres­i­den­tial elec­tions and have only a non­vot­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tive in Con­gress.

Harry Hamburg, AP From left, Puerto Rico Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz, Gov. Luis Fortuno and Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi, take part in a news conference on Capitol Hill where they spoke in support of the Puerto Rico Democracy Act. "Patience is a virtue, but my people have been patient enough," Pierluisi said.

Har­ry Ham­burg, AP From left, Puer­to Rico Sen­ate Pres­i­dent Thomas Rivera Schatz, Gov. Luis For­tuno and Res­i­dent Com­mis­sion­er Pedro Pier­luisi, take part in a news con­fer­ence on Capi­tol Hill where they spoke in sup­port of the Puer­to Rico Democ­ra­cy Act. “Patience is a virtue, but my peo­ple have been patient enough,” Pier­luisi said.

Puer­to Rico’s lone del­e­gate to Con­gress, Pedro Pier­luisi, argued that Puer­to Ricans should have the right to decide their own des­tiny.
“The fun­da­men­tal jus­tice of our cause — to enable a fair and mean­ing­ful self-deter­mi­na­tion process for the peo­ple of Puer­to Rico after more than 110 years of inac­tion — is beyond ques­tion,” said Pier­luisi, who favors state­hood. “Patience is a virtue, but my peo­ple have been patient enough.”

But Rep. Nydia Velazquez, D-N.Y., said the Puer­to Rican peo­ple have not request­ed Con­gress to inter­vene. “Instead of deal­ing first with the very real con­cerns of how the peo­ple of Puer­to Rico sur­vive day by day, we are telling them our pri­or­i­ty is to debate a sta­tus bill that will not become law,” she said. “This is a dis­grace.”

The bill, which has not yet been vot­ed on in the Sen­ate, sets up a two-step process. Puer­to Ricans would first vote on whether to keep the sta­tus quo. If they vot­ed for change, they would then choose among state­hood, inde­pen­dence and becom­ing an inde­pen­dent nation in “free asso­ci­a­tion” with the Unit­ed States. Microne­sia and the Mar­shall Islands, for instance, have free-asso­ci­a­tion rela­tion­ships with the U.S. that make them inde­pen­dent but have agree­ments in place for U.S. defense and eco­nom­ic aid.

Crit­ics charged that the bill was unfair­ly weight­ed toward state­hood. In past votes in Puer­to Rico, state­hood and com­mon­wealth ran neck and neck, with less sup­port for inde­pen­dence options. But the first vote in the bill’s two-step process would pit the cur­rent sta­tus against all oth­er options com­bined.

“It’s spelled the same in Eng­lish as in Span­ish: No, no,” said Rep. Luis Gutier­rez, D-Ill., in voic­ing his oppo­si­tion.

Much of the con­tro­ver­sy over what Puer­to Rico should do focus­es on how its options are defined. Rep. Jose Ser­ra­no, D-N.Y., said those who advo­cate keep­ing the island’s com­mon­wealth sta­tus over­promise that they will improve on the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion by stay­ing U.S. cit­i­zens, but pick­ing and choos­ing among U.S. laws.

“I want that for the Bronx,” he said. “That’s a great deal.”

Law­mak­ers also vot­ed on amend­ments deal­ing with who exact­ly gets to cast a bal­lot in the ref­er­en­dum and the issue of lan­guage on the island, where Eng­lish and Span­ish are offi­cial lan­guages but Span­ish is more wide­ly spo­ken.

The bill allows not only the 4 mil­lion res­i­dents of Puer­to Rico to vote, but also peo­ple born on the island who live now on the main­land now — some­thing advo­cat­ed by Gutier­rez, who favors inde­pen­dence for Puer­to Rico.

“The peo­ple of Puer­to Rico are a nation,” he said, adding, “They have a lan­guage and that lan­guage is Span­ish.”

The bill doesn’t bind Con­gress to accept Puer­to Rico as a state. And it doesn’t say how large a major­i­ty of Puer­to Ricans are need­ed to choose a new polit­i­cal sta­tus. Rep. Jason Chaf­fetz, R-Utah, said Con­gress ought to require that two-thirds of res­i­dents approve before state­hood is allowed.

“You don’t want to get mar­ried to some­one who is only 51 per­cent sure, for good­ness sakes,” Chaf­fetz said.

A Puer­to Rican state would get two sen­a­tors and prob­a­bly about six seats in Con­gress, accord­ing to the Con­gres­sion­al Research Ser­vice, forc­ing Con­gress to decide whether to increase the size of the House or take those seats from oth­er states. In the lat­ter case, New York and Mis­souri like­ly would each lose a seat and four oth­er states — Ari­zona, South Car­oli­na, Texas and Wash­ing­ton — would miss out on seats they would have oth­er­wise gained under the next round of reap­por­tion­ment.

Ser­ra­no said Puer­to Ricans are ready to vote on an option that removes them from being a U.S. ter­ri­to­ry.

“From the time you’re 10 years old, all you debate in Puer­to Rico is sta­tus and base­ball. And sta­tus is big­ger,” Ser­ra­no said.