WASHINGTON — The U.S. House on Thursday passed a bill that would allow Puerto Rico to hold its first binding referendum on becoming a state or gaining some form of independence, in a last-ditch effort that has little chance of passing the Senate.
The bill, passed 191 against 233 with some Republican support, will give voters on U.S. soil three choices: statehood, independence, or independence by free association.
“It is very important to me that any proposal in Congress to decolonize Puerto Rico is informed and directed by Puerto Ricans,” said Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz Representative, chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, which oversees affairs on U.S. soil.
The proposal would commit Congress to admit Puerto Rico into the United States as the 51st state if voters on the island approve it. Voters can also choose either full independence or independence by free association, the terms of which will be determined after negotiations on foreign relations, US citizenship, and the use of the US dollar.
Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, who has worked on the issue throughout his career, said it was a “long and arduous road” to get the proposal to the House floor.
“For too long, the Puerto Rican people have been excluded from the promise of American democracy and self-determination that our nation has always championed,” said the Maryland Democrat.
After passing through the Democratic-controlled House, the bill now heads to a divided Senate, where it faces a clock to run before the end of the year and Republican lawmakers who have long opposed statehood.
Puerto Rico Governor Pedro Pierluisi of the pro-state New Progressive Party traveled to Washington for a vote. “It will be a historic day because it will create a precedent that we have not had before,” he said.
Members of his party, including Puerto Rico Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González, applauded the bill’s anticipated ratification, but reactions on US soil were largely silenced and filled with disappointment as it was expected to be rejected in the Senate.
The proposal for a binding referendum infuriated many on an island that held seven non-binding referendums on its political status and did not show up with an overwhelming majority. The last referendum was held in November 2020, with 53% of the votes in favor of the state and 47% against, with just over half of the registered voters participating.
The proposed binding referendum will be the first time that Puerto Rico’s current status as a US community is not included as an option, and it will be a blow to the main opposition People’s Democratic Party, which maintains the status quo.
Pablo José Hernández Rivera, a lawyer in Puerto Rico, said the approval of the bill by the House would be “trivial”, as was the approval of previous bills in 1998 and 2010.
“We Puerto Ricans are fed up with the New Progressive Party spending 28 years in Washington on vicious and undemocratic status projects,” he said.
Puerto Rico’s representative in Congress, González, praised the bill and said it would give the island the right to self-determination it deserves.
“Many of us disagree about what the future should look like, but we all agree that the decision should rest with the people of Puerto Rico,” he said.
Coto reported from San Juan, Puerto Rico.