SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Puerto Rico's representative in Congress is seeking an unprecedented yes-or-no vote on whether the island should become the 51st state, submitting a bill Wednesday that riled many in the U.S. territory.
The proposal by Pedro Pierluisi calls for a federally approved ratifying vote in which Puerto Ricans would be asked if they want their island to become a state. If the majority agrees, the bill calls for the president to submit legislation to Congress within 180 days.
"I expect a clear and firm answer from Congress. This cannot fall on deaf ears," Pierluisi said. "We lack democratic rights ... It's about time this issue be addressed."
The White House announced last month it would seek $2.5 million from Congress to fund a vote on the island's future political status following disagreements about the results of a nonbinding, two-part referendum held in November.
On the ballot's first question, more than 900,000 voters, or 54 percent, said they were not content with the current commonwealth status.
A second question asked voters to choose a status. Of the approximately 1.3 million voters who made a choice, nearly 800,000, or 61 percent, supported statehood. Some 437,000 backed sovereign free association and 72,560 chose independence. However, nearly 500,000 left that question blank.
Pierluisi and members of his New Progressive Party maintain that a majority chose statehood. Opponents including Puerto Rico governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla, whose Popular Democratic Party supports the status quo, say the results were inconclusive.
The general secretary of Garcia's party, Jorge Suarez, rejected Pierliuisi's bill, saying Puerto Ricans cannot ratify what never happened.
"No one can say that the previous referendum held on the island revealed any kind of result," Suarez said. "Pedro Pierluisi in Congress today made statements based on fictional results in which the status quo was excluded from the ballot."
Pierluisi's bill is co-authored by 30 legislators, including Rep. Jose Serrano, a New York Democrat who for the first time aligned himself publicly with Pierluisi on the status issue, stating that he supports any measure that does away with colonialism.
Serrano questioned why people are afraid of the public's opinion on the issue.
"Let's ask the big question," Serrano said. "If the answer is no, then maybe the issue remains dead for a generation. If the answer is yes, the issue remains on the table."
Less than a day before Pierluisi submitted his bill, a majority of legislators in Puerto Rico approved a resolution they plan to send to President Barack Obama and Congress. In it, they stress that the results of November's referendum are skewed since the current political status was not included as a choice. They also praised the White House for seeking funds to finance a future plebiscite.
The money would go to the U.S. territory's elections commission for an education campaign and a plebiscite to resolve the island's status, with Obama specifying that the U.S. attorney general would have to approve the ballot before it goes to voters.
It is unclear when a new plebiscite would be held. The House Appropriations Committee is scheduled to debate the White House request, among other items, by July. If approved, it would be the first U.S.-financed vote on the issue in the island's history.
Puerto Rico's governor on Wednesday said he supports holding another referendum, adding that Pierluisi's bill was unfair.
"We have to handle the status issue in a fair and responsible manner, not in a divisive way like a certain group is trying to do," Garcia said.
Puerto Rico previously held nonbinding referendums in 1967, 1993 and 1998, with statehood never garnering a clear majority and independence never obtaining more than 5 percent of the vote.
The island has been a U.S. territory for 115 years, and its people have been U.S. citizens since 1917 although they cannot vote in the U.S. presidential election, have no representation in the Senate and only limited representation in the House of Representatives.