Legislation allowing Puerto Rico residents to vote on statehood cleared the U.S. House Thursday. The vote marked a culmination of years of negotiating closely, including among members of Florida’s Congressional Delegation.
“It’s time to set our people free,” said U.S. Rep. Darren Soto, a Kissimmee Democrat. “After 124 years, it’s past time for Americans in Puerto Rico to decide their own form of government. The Puerto Rico Status Act will finally allow Puerto Ricans to throw off their colonial bonds.”
The vote fell largely along party lines with 16 Republicans crossing the aisle to join 217 Democrats. That included U.S. Reps. María Elvira Salazar, a Coral Gables Republican, and Bill Posey, a Rockledge Republican, the only GOP members of Florida’s House delegation to support the Puerto Rico Status Act (HR 8393).
Somewhat surprisingly, even some Florida lawmakers representing significant Puerto Rican populations voted no on the bill. That was in large part thanks to a concern raised repeatedly about the structure.
The legislation, if signed, would allow a referendum next year when Puerto Rico voters would decide whether to choose statehood, independence or sovereignty with a free association with the U.S. But remaining a U.S. territory would not be an option.
U.S. Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart, a Hialeah Republican, released a statement after the vote suggesting the bill had been rushed through the process by a Democratic majority, rather than taking the time for legislation to be developed that addressed GOP concerns.
“To no one’s surprise, House Democratic Leadership hastily brought a bill to the floor which lacked the requisite debate and bicameral, bipartisan input and support to become law,” he said.
“Such consequential legislation must go through regular order, but unfortunately, House Democrats waited until the last possible minute, during a lame-duck session, to rush this bill that was negotiated behind closed doors.”
Notably, one of the most vocal proponents of the bill, Puerto Rico Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González Colón, supported the bill as written. Like other representatives of U.S. territories, González Colón serves in the House and can work on legislation, but has no vote.
“Today is a truly historic day for Puerto Rico. Ironically it is also (a) perfect example of the island colonial’s reality,” Gonzalez-Colon said. “I am Puerto Rico’s only voice in congress. I represent 3.2 million Americans at home, more constituents than anyone in this chamber. And yet as we consider a bill I helped write, a bill that will directly impact the life of every citizen I represent, I still must rely and depend on everybody here because I cannot vote on the floor. This is the best example of why this bill is so important to Puerto Rico.”
Díaz-Balart commended González Colón for “tireless work” on the issue and said he would continue to work with her on the issue.
Republicans raised a series of concerns about the bill. While all residents of the island are fully American citizens, U.S. Rep. Tom McClintock, a California Republican, said that didn’t mean they were versed in American politics.
“Only 20% of the island is fluent in English, which means we would be admitting a state whose vast majority was isolated from the political debate that is central to our democracy,” he said.
He also noted that while the island population had voted three times for statehood in non-binding resolutions, the 2020 vote was close, with just 52.5% in favor of becoming a state.
U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, a Tampa Democrat, argued on the floor the current situation remained unsustainable, and that the nation could not continue treating residents as second-class citizens.
“I hope we can all agree that we all value basic human rights and that means like every American citizen, our Puerto Rican neighbors deserve true representation, equal rights and everything that flows from that,” she said.
The legislation must be approved in the Senate before being sent to President Joe Biden for his signature.
Correction: A prior version of this article did not identify Posey as a second Florida Republican in favor of the bill.