Puerto Rico leaders to lobby Congress for a greater voice

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico &mdash Puerto Rico's top political leaders are heading to Washington Wednesday to battle over a bill that could result in the first congressionally mandated referendum on the future of the island's political status.

Proponents of statehood for Puerto Rico say a bill before the House Natural Resources Committee would, if enacted, mark the first time that islanders would get a real say in their future. But opponents argue that the Puerto Rico Democracy Act of 2009 is stacked in favor of making the island the 51st state.

The House committee has scheduled a hearing on the bill on Wednesday.

"This is historic," said former Miami Mayor Maurice Ferre, a Puerto Rico native who was in San Juan this week promoting the bill, HR 2499. "In the 111 years the U.S. flag has been in Puerto Rico, Congress has never asked: What is Puerto Rico's position? This bill will give me as a Puerto Rican the opportunity to offer my opinion, which has been denied to me for 74 years."

The United States took possession of Puerto Rico after the Spanish-American War in 1898. Puerto Ricans have been U.S. citizens since 1917, but their representative in Congress does not vote, they do not cast ballots in presidential elections and they pay no federal income taxes.

Whether the island should keep its status as a commonwealth or become a state is a hotly contested issue here that creates a bitterly divided electorate.