WASHINGTON—For the first time in nearly a decade, the House of Representatives seems likely to pass a bill that would put Puerto Rico on a path to statehood or independence.
The latest of many efforts to settle the 4 million islanders' ambiguous relationship with the United States comes as Congress struggles with an immigration overhaul to deal with 12 million illegal migrants, most of them Hispanics.
Sponsored by Reps. Jose Serrano, D-N.Y., and Luis Fortuno, R-Puerto Rico, the Puerto Rico Democracy Act of 2007 faces tough scrutiny in the Senate. But its backers have President Bush's support and are optimistic that they can prevail, possibly securing a House floor vote as soon as next month.
"There's a good chance," said Fortuno, a statehood supporter and nonvoting member of Congress who's preparing a run at the governorship of Puerto Rico next year. "I've been talking to the leadership of both sides, and I truly believe that it is very doable."
The initiative, based on a White House task-force report on Puerto Rico's status issued in late 2005, establishes a two-stage plebiscite process. Islanders first would choose between maintaining their current status—officially a U.S. territory but broadly known as a commonwealth—or opting for a different and permanent arrangement.
If they choose the current status, Puerto Ricans would be asked to repeat the process every eight years until a definitive result is reached.
If they want a permanent deal—the most likely outcome, according to observers—they'd vote again between statehood and some form of independence, which could be full sovereignty or a middle-of-the-road option known as "free association."
Congress, which has the power to decide Puerto Rico's status, has never mandated a plebiscite for the island.
Opponents of the Serrano-Fortuno bill say it's constructed to eliminate one major option from the ballot: an enhancement of the current arrangement.
"This is the first time I have seen a process in which the runoff election would be held between the second and third place," said Anibal Acevedo-Vila, the governor of Puerto Rico and a proponent of enhanced commonwealth.
The bill's supporters say this is the only acceptable formula to settle a question that dates to 1898, when U.S. troops seized the island from Spain. Its people have been U.S. citizens since 1917. Residents don't vote in U.S. presidential elections and have one nonvoting member in the House, although those who live on the mainland can vote in federal elections.
This limbo has its upsides. Island residents don't pay federal taxes, and they get federal transfers to the tune of $7 billion a year for programs such as the No Child Left Behind education act. Puerto Rico is home to a thriving drug-manufacturing industry, and it has more trade with the United States than Brazil or Italy does.
But Puerto Rico is poor by U.S. standards, with 2 out of 5 citizens falling below the federal poverty line. If it became a state, it would rank 25th in population and field two senators and seven House members.
Many islanders worry that becoming a U.S. state would compromise their identity.
"Puerto Rico is a Latin American nation," said Eduardo Bhatia, the governor's representative in Washington. "There's no question about it."
Pulled and pushed by those considerations, Puerto Ricans long have struggled to make up their minds about the island's status.
They've held four nonbinding status plebiscites since 1967. An undefined form of commonwealth prevailed each time by a tiny margin over statehood. Independence came in a distant third.
The deadlock has carried over into Congress, which has seen 66 House and 27 Senate bills or resolutions, often dueling proposals from each side of the issue.
Acevedo-Vila prefers to have islanders elect a constitutional assembly that would present Congress with a status proposal. His pitch: a permanent, "enhanced commonwealth" status that would allow Puerto Ricans to enter into trade and tax agreements with third countries. Islanders also would be allowed to waive federal laws they didn't like.
One problem for backers of enhanced commonwealth is that few think it would pass either political or constitutional muster. Serrano has called it a "letter to Santa Claus."
"It's the best of all worlds," allowing the island to conduct an independent foreign policy and to veto U.S. laws, said Dick Thornburgh, a former U.S. attorney general who's written a book on Puerto Rico's status. "It's what any state would wish to have. ... It's totally unrealistic."