Washington Post

Thursday, March 5, 1998

House Passes Puerto Rico Bill
Statehood Initiative for Island Gets One-Vote Margin
By GUY GUGLIOTTA, Washington Post Staff Writer

In a cliffhanger vote, the House yesterday overcame opposition from the left and right to approve historic legislation that could put Puerto Rico on the road to becoming the 51st state in the union.

By a vote of 209 to 208 lawmakers approved the United States-Puerto Rico Political Status Act after 11 hours of often contentious debate. When the gavel sounded ending the seesaw vote count, pro-statehood Puerto Ricans seated in the gallery overlooking the House floor rose to their feet in a collective roar of triumph.

House Resources Committee Chairman Don Young (R-Alaska) said he would urge the Senate to act on companion legislation in hopes of producing a joint bill by the end of the congressional session this fall.

President Clinton strongly supports the House measure and hailed last night's vote as "a victory for democracy and against exclusion." But the narrow House victory could dim chances that the Senate will take it up. Rep. Gerald B.H. Solomon (R-N.Y.), one of the chief opponents of the bill, said the bill "is dead in the Senate."

Regardless of the ultimate outcome, however, the legislation marked the first time in history Congress has approved a mechanism to clarify the status of Puerto Rico, a Caribbean island of 3.8 million people ceded to the United States a century ago as spoils of the Spanish-American War.

If the legislation becomes law, Puerto Rico would be required to hold a plebiscite by the end of the year to decide whether it wishes to become a state or an independent country, or remain an internally self-governing "commonwealth."

If commonwealth wins, nothing would happen until another plebiscite is held within 10 years. Should statehood or independence prevail, however, the president would be required to submit a 10-year transition plan by the middle of next year.

The bill provoked strong opposition from commonwealth advocates, mostly liberal Democrats who charged that the legislation was skewed in favor of statehood: "By voting on this legislation, we are imposing statehood on Puerto Rico," said Puerto Rico-born Rep. Nydia M. Velazquez (D-N.Y.). "This is not about self-determination."

But large numbers of conservatives also opposed the bill, charging that the American people were ill-prepared to deal with the possibility of making Puerto Rico a state. Only 43 of the House's 226 Republicans voted for the bill. All but 31 Democrats voted for it.

Two of Maryland's four Republicans -- Wayne T. Gilchrist and Constance A. Morella -- joined four Democrats in supporting the measure. Virginia's delegation also was split, with Republican Thomas M. Davis III voting for the bill as four other Republicans opposed it, and three of six Democrats -- Virgil H. Goode Jr., Owen B. Pickett and Norman Sisisky -- voting no.

"This is a serious, serious decision," said Rep. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), "and I don't think the American people know the issue is out there."

Perhaps not, conceded Young, the bill's principal author, but passage of the measure "is the first small step" in educating U.S. voters: "This is part of a process where you get the public involved."

Prospects for passage appeared doomed until the bill's supporters forged a key compromise amendment to soften English language requirements for the predominantly Spanish-speaking Puerto Ricans.

The House approved the amendment sponsored by Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) by a vote of 238 to 182, encouraging Puerto Rico to "promote the teaching of English" to "enable students . . . to achieve English language proficiency by the age of 10" in order to enhance the island's statehood prospects.

The amendment was a bipartisan substitute for a stronger measure, proposed by Solomon, mandating English as the official language of the entire United States and directing several specific measures at Puerto Rico.

Solomon branded the Burton substitute a "gutting amendment" and warned of a "Quebec situation" if Puerto Rico were allowed to join the United States without more stringent language requirements.

The bill, one of the most contentious to reach the House floor in recent memory, featured Democrats and Republicans on both sides of most issues. Support for the measure was managed in part by Puerto Rico's non-voting resident commissioner, Carlos Romero Barcelo (D), while Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.), born in Chicago of Puerto Rican descent, led the opposition.

Romero made an impassioned plea for the legislation, noting that "I cannot even vote for this bill that is so important for Puerto Rico." Gutierrez, arguing that Puerto Rico is a nation with its own culture and language, complained that Spanish-speaking islanders watching the debate on C-SPAN "are not going to understand what is going on here today."

For some Puerto Ricans, however, the House debate was familiar. "It's kind of anticlimactic for most people," Jose Mendez Santos, 29, an unemployed San Juan resident who favors statehood, told the Associated Press as he and others watched the House action on television at a restaurant in San Juan. "I think most Puerto Ricans can recite what the congressmen are going to say before they even say it."

Gutierrez and other opponents charged that pro-statehood zealots were forcing an unpopular bill on Puerto Ricans who have never demonstrated a clear desire to change the island's status.

The last status vote in 1993 was won by commonwealth with 48.6 percent to 46.3 percent for statehood and 4.4 percent for independence.

But supporters praised the bill for forcing what they considered a long overdue change on a territory mired for a century in a political twilight zone: "This is the right thing to do," Young said.