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House Approves Ballot On Puerto Rico's Status

But 'English-only' amendment fails

WASHINGTON (AllPolitics, March 4) -- By a margin of one vote, the House approved a bill late Wednesday that would set up a historic referendum that could pave the way for statehood for Puerto Rico.

Earlier, lawmakers had debated and rejected an amendment to the bill that would have designated English as the "official language" of the United States, seen as a likely setback to chances for Spanish-speaking Puerto Rico to become the 51st state.

The bill, H.R. 856, will give Puerto Ricans the ballot choices of continued commonwealth status, independence or statehood. It passed the House by a vote of 209 to 208, after Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D., changed his vote at the last minute from "no" to "yes."

When the vote was announced, spectators in the public gallery broke into boisterous applause.

If Puerto Ricans were to vote for a change in status, Congress would still have to set up a 10-year transition to either statehood or independence.

"The fundamental choice: Do we cherish the principles of our democracy ... and will we put an end to 100 years of colonialism?" said Rep. Carlos Romero-Barcelo, Puerto Rico's non-voting delegate to the House.

For a time, though, the central question of the island commonwealth's status took a back seat to a controversial amendment by Rep. Gerald Solomon, R-N.Y., to designate English as the United States' official language, a provision that would apply to Spanish-speaking Puerto Rico if it became a state.

Solomon's English-only amendment was denounced by statehood supporters, although he said it would not stop people from speaking Spanish.

"For the past two centuries, we have forged a nation by emphasizing our common beliefs, our common ideals and, perhaps most important ... our common language," Solomon said on the House floor.

"We must encourage everyone to speak English, but we must not discriminate against those that speak other languages," said Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga.

In the end, the House approved milder substitute language that said Puerto Rico would be subject to the same language requirements of any other state, if it became one. The United States has no official language.

The plebiscite legislation, by Alaska Rep. Don Young, has broad bipartisan support, with backing from President Bill Clinton, House Speaker Newt Gingrich and House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt. The measure cleared the House Resources Committee on a 44-1 vote.

Puerto Ricans voted on their status in 1993 in a nonbinding advisory vote. Commonwealth proponents won 48.6 percent, statehood 46.3 percent and independence 4.4 percent.

"It is now time for Congress to take action to bring to these 3.8 million U.S. citizens political, economic and social equality," said Romero-Barcelo.

Some House members urged a delay in the vote.

"Americans are going to wake up Thursday morning with Puerto Rico well on its way to becoming the 51st state, and they're going to ask why weren't we informed?" said Rep. Roger Wicker, R-Miss.

Puerto Ricans are American citizens and can serve in the military. But while they send delegates to political conventions, they cannot vote in presidential elections and don't pay federal income tax. Their one delegate to Congress has no vote.

Puerto Ricans who oppose statehood point to the advantages they have with commonwealth status.

"It allows us to be Puerto Ricans while still being U.S. citizens," Anibal Acevedo-Vila, president of the pro-commonwealth Popular Democratic Party, told The Associated Press. "If you choose statehood, you will put in danger your culture, your identity, your nationhood. If you chose independence, you will lose your U.S. citizenship."

Puerto Ricans and other Americans have been arguing about what should become of the island for years.

One man in San Juan said, "Puerto Rico is a different nation with a different culture, different from the United States, so that means that it can be independent, it should be independent."

Said another man in San Juan: "I believe we should stay the way we are. It's worked for about 50 years already. We get the best of both worlds."

Some Puerto Ricans worry the ballot is slanted toward statehood and could lead to imposing the English language on the islanders.

"That is unfair, it is unwise, it is undemocratic, it is un-American to do such a thing, to impose," said Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill.

As a state, Puerto Rico would be entitled to six seats in Congress. Since the number of representatives in the House would stay at 435, six other states, like Tennessee, could each lose one.

"It would definitely hurt our state, if we lose the equivalent of 11 percent of our House delegation," said Rep. John Duncan, D-Tenn.

The measure now goes to the Senate.

CNN's Bruce Morton contributed to this report.
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Wednesday March 4, 1998

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