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First Step on Puerto Rico's Long Road to a Vote on Statehood

US House, by barest of margins, this week OKs new referendum in the commonwealth.

The House's historic vote to grant self-determination to the Puerto Rican people was a boost to those seeking statehood for the Caribbean island. But there is a long way to go before a 51st star is added to the American flag.

The measure must first pass the Senate, where supporters will have trouble even bringing the bill up this year. Then Puerto Ricans would have to choose statehood in a referendum - an option they rejected as recently as 1993.

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Wednesday's razor-thin vote margin, 209 to 208, illustrates the complexity of the debate and the ambivalence among some US lawmakers about adding a relatively poor, Spanish-speaking island to the Union.

But the bill had on its side the heavyweight backing of President Clinton, Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia, and House minority leader Richard Gephardt (D) of Missouri, who argued on behalf of Puerto Ricans' right to vote on their future.

"This is a small step for Puerto Rico, but a big step for America," says Rep. Don Young (R) of Alaska, chief sponsor of the bill.

The bill sets up a three-step process: In an initial vote this year, Puerto Ricans could choose statehood, independence, or continued commonwealth status. If they chose to remain a commonwealth, or if no option gains a majority of votes, a new referendum would be held in 10 years.

But if they opt for statehood or independence, Washington would develop a transition plan - and Puerto Ricans would then vote a second time on whether to approve it. They would vote a third time on final approval, and Congress would have to OK each step.

In the 1993 vote on status, 48.6 percent of Puerto Ricans voted to keep commonwealth status, while 46.3 percent voted for statehood and 4.4 percent for independence. That vote marked the first time commonwealth status did not gain a majority.

THE House bill was bitterly opposed by "commonwealthers" and independence supporters, including Puerto Rican-born Rep. Nydia Velzquez (D) of New York and Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D) of Illinois, who is of Puerto Rican descent. "It is a bill that is cleverly designed to obtain an artificial majority for the statehood of Puerto Rico," Mr. Gutierrez says.

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But Puerto Rico's nonvoting delegate to the House, Carlos Romero-Barcelo, a statehood supporter, disagrees: "This legislation does not endorse one political choice over another; it is status-neutral."

Many Republicans and Democrats expressed concern that admitting the mostly Spanish-speaking island to the Union will create "another Quebec," a reference to the difficulties in Canada between its English-speaking citizenry and its French-speaking province. But the House watered down an amendment to make English the official language of the United States and required only that Puerto Rico submit to federal language requirements and promote the teaching of English if it becomes a state.

The vote exposed philosophical differences in both parties. Only 43 Republicans voted for the bill, and 31 Democrats voted against it. Many rank-and-file Republicans grumbled about having to vote at all, seeing it as a no-win situation. But others noted that the proposal had passed in committee by a 44-to-1 vote.

"It would have been an outrage to ignore this bill," says Rep. Christopher Shays (R) of Connecticut, who opposed it.

The bill's prospects in the Senate are uncertain. "I don't think that with all the things we have to do this year that's something we're going to be able to spend a lot of time on," Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi said before the House vote.

Some speculate that Republicans are wary of admitting a territory that is likely to elect two Democratic senators and six Democratic representatives.

But Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D) of Hawaii notes that when his state and Alaska were admitted, conventional wisdom held that Hawaii would be a Republican state while Alaska would vote Democratic. Exactly the opposite has occurred.

Puerto Rico has been a US territory for 100 years, ever since Spain turned it over after the Spanish-American War. It became a self-governing commonwealth in 1952 under US sovereignty.

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