SAN JUAN (Reuters) - Puerto Rico's sole non-voting representative to Congress proposed legislation Wednesday that would offer U.S. statehood to the island if its voters wanted it.
The Puerto Rico Status Resolution Act, which has 30 bipartisan co-sponsors, marks the first time that legislation has been offered that would admit Puerto Rico as the 51st state in the more than century-long relationship between the United States and the Caribbean island.
The measure proposed in the House of Representatives would ask Puerto Rican voters, "Do you want Puerto Rico to be admitted as a state of the United States?" If they support statehood the bill directs the president to introduce legislation within 180 days to admit Puerto Rico as a state of the union "on an equal footing" with other states.
"The government of the United States is a champion of democracy and self-determination, and it has to adhere to these principles with respect to its own citizens," Puerto Rico's Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi said after introducing the bill. "Puerto Rico has been called the shiny star of the Caribbean, and it's time that our state shines, together with the other states, on the flag of the United States of America."
The measure must first be approved by the Natural Resources committee before it could go to a full vote. No committee hearings were scheduled yet, and the timing of any action was unclear.
The push for statehood follows a two-question status plebiscite held in Puerto Rico in November, in which 54 percent of voters said they were against continuing the commonwealth's territory status. A second question had voters choose among alternatives to the current status, with 61 percent voting for statehood, 33 percent voting for Puerto Rico becoming a nation in a free association with the United States and 5.5 percent voting for outright independence.
Puerto Rico's Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla, who supports the current commonwealth status, said that his administration is in favor of efforts to seek a status solution, but currently places a higher priority on fighting crime and fixing the island's struggling economy.
The governor's pro-commonwealth Popular Democratic Party also downplays the performance of statehood in November's vote, noting that 26 percent of ballots cast in the second question were left blank as a protest that the status quo was left off the second ballot.
In March, the White House included as part of its budget proposal a plan to spend $2.5 million to hold a U.S. government-sanctioned vote that would allow Puerto Ricans to choose their political future.
Pierluisi said his bill is "distinct" but "consistent" with the president's proposal and serves as a model of how the vote called for by the president can be structured.
Much of Puerto Rico's status debate centers on how commonwealth is defined. Supporters describe Puerto Rico's relationship with the United States as a bilateral pact that allows the island some autonomy while enjoying being a part of the nation, but critics say it is a colony under the complete authority of the U.S. Congress that can be changed at any time.
In a March 2011 report, the President's Task Force on Puerto Rico's Status found that Puerto Rico economic and social development was being hindered by the lack of a status resolution.
Debate over the island's status has long dominated politics in Puerto Rico, where political parties are formed around the status preferences of statehood, independence and the current commonwealth status. Puerto Ricans have voted to remain a U.S. commonwealth in four previous votes held since 1967, but the margin of victory has decreased over the years.
The United States seized Puerto Rico as war booty from Spain following the Spanish-American war in 1898. Island residents became U.S. citizens in 1917, and Puerto Rico was granted a larger degree of autonomous rule under commonwealth status in 1952.
Under commonwealth status, Puerto Ricans living on the island are U.S. citizens who can't vote for president and whose Congressional representation is limited to a nonvoting representative in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Most Puerto Ricans pay no federal income tax, but contribute to Social Security, are eligible to receive federal welfare benefits and have long served in the armed forces.
(Reporting by Reuters in San Juan; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)