The House on Thursday approved the Puerto Rico status bill (H.R.2499) by a 223–169 vote after a grueling full day of debate on the island’s past, present and possible future role in its relationship with the United States.
But, in a major change in the bill, the commonwealth option was given a second chance if voters rejected the current status.
The Democrats carried the day for the measure as 184 of the party’s lawmakers voted in favor. They were joined by 39 Republicans. Those opposed to the bill included 129 Republicans and 40 Democrats.
A total of 57 Republicans had signed on as co-sponsors. Apparently 18 either changed their minds and voted against the bill, or did not vote at all.
The big change came about when an amendment by Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-Texas, was approved that would put the commonwealth on the second plebiscite as one of four options, along with statehood, independence and free association.
Under the bill, introduced by Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi, a second plebiscite will be held if voters say in a first referendum that they want a change in the current U.S.-Puerto Rico relationship.
It was unclear at press time how commonwealth would qualify for the second ballot if in the first vote, a majority decides it wants to change that status.
A last-minute motion, had it passed, would most likely have killed the Pierluisi bill. The motion, which included an English-only amendment and a gun provision in the measure, was defeated by a narrow 198–194 count.
The change was filed by Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., the ranking minority member of the House Resources Committee, which approved the bill last year. Hastings tried to amend the bill so that English would be the one and only official language of a Puerto Rico state, and gun laws would be liberalized if and when the island joined the Union.
The gun provision was added to get the votes of the many Democrats who back any legislation that includes liberalization of gun laws—possibly out of conviction, but also out of fear that their gun-owning constituents would not return them to office.
The House also accepted a mild language amendment filed by Reps. Dan Burton, R-Ind., and Don Young, R-Alaska,
The amendment says that under statehood or commonwealth Puerto Rico should be treated as all other states on federal language requirements and that the teaching of English should be promoted on the island.
Pierluisi hailed the status vote outcome. He said it meant that “truth and democracy has won out over fear, misinformation and [political] paralysis.”
He said passage of the measure makes him confident that the Senate will take up the bill “with the same principle of justice and democratic rights …”
The debate and votes, which began at about 10 a.m., with a one-hour pause, did not wind up until just before 7 p.m. The principal players arguing on the floor in favor of the bill were Pierluisi and Resources Committee Chairman, Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., while stateside Puerto Rican Reps. Nydia Velázquez, D-N.Y. and Luis Gutiérrez, D-Ill., both of whom argued long, hard and passionately against the measure.
Gutiérrez made Puerto Rican patriot arguments against the bill, which he saw as “rigged” in favor of statehood. He said the one indisputable right that the Puerto Rican people had was the “inalienable right” to have the island become an independent nation.
He said Puerto Rico was a “nation of people” and said, apparently tongue-in-cheek, that he would support statehood if the island were allowed as a state to have its own Olympics team and its own one official Spanish language. “Would Congress approve that?” he asked.
In attempting to show that there is little interest in English on the island, he said that the only daily newspaper in Puerto Rico that has gone bankrupt and been forced to close was the English-language San Juan Star. He did not mention the existence of the Puerto Rico Daily Sun.
Velázquez, and the bills other opponents, emphasized that Puerto Ricans had turned down statehood in three previous plebiscites and insisted that “economic issues must be addressed first” for the well-being of the island.
She called the alleged skewering of the bill for statehood and against commonwealth “appalling, deceitful and shameful.”
The two Puerto Rican lawmakers had introduced five amendments, all of which were struck down. These included proposals to eliminate the first commonwealth yes-or-no plebiscite, to originate any status change from the Puerto Rico government, to add the option “none of the above” to a status vote, to only make English-language ballots available upon request and to allow all stateside Puerto Ricans to vote in the plebiscites, instead of those born on the island and living in the states.
The principal debaters were joined by some 20 or so other House members who had their say during the debate.
One of the most important and staunchest defenders was House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., who made a last-minute plea in favor of the legislation.
Mayagüez-born, Bronx-raised Rep. José Serrano, D-N.Y., made a strong plea for the legislation. He said he supported it because it “begins a process,” and that the process would be fair. Serrano said island residents were very knowledgeable, status-wise, and “no one in Puerto Rico will be forced to vote for statehood, unless they want it.”