The House voted Thursday to allow Puerto Ricans to change the island’s commonwealth status, in what critics are saying is a backdoor attempt to force Puerto Ricans into choosing U.S. statehood -- something Puerto Rican voters already have rejected three times.
The bill, which passed 223-169 and now must be taken up by the Senate, would introduce a two-step ballot measure for Puerto Rico to decide if its residents want to change their current relationship with the United States. If they vote to change their status, they can then choose to become a state, pursue independence, or seek some other "political association between sovereign nations."
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, said that while Puerto Rico doesn't need congressional authorization to hold such a nonbinding vote, the bill could be a game-changer -- part of a plan, he said, to give the island's progressive activists "legitimacy" in a push toward statehood. Chaffetz suggested it was part of an effort to bring more Democrats into Congress.
"That's what some of us who understand this bill are so just frightened about," Chaffetz told radio and Fox News host Glenn Beck. "The majority of people in Puerto Rico don't even necessarily want this."
Puerto Rico became a U.S. territory at the end of the Spanish-American War. Those born on the island were granted U.S. citizenship in 1917 and Puerto Rico gained commonwealth status in 1952.
Today, Puerto Ricans serve in the military but can't vote in presidential elections. They do not pay federal income tax on income earned on the island.
Proponents of the new measure say it gives citizens of the island the right to self-determination. Thursday's action was nonbinding, and if Puerto Ricans eventually select statehood, Congress would still have to vote to admit the island to the union as the 51st state.
The issue divided Democrats and Republicans alike as liberal Democrats with ties to Puerto Rico teamed with conservative Republicans to oppose the measure.
Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., whose parents were born in Puerto Rico and who represents part of Chicago, slammed the bill on the House floor Thursday morning, calling it a device to "impose" statehood on residents who have repeatedly rejected the idea.
"Really it's designed to get one thing and one thing only, and that is to have the people of Puerto Rico accept statehood for themselves," he said. "Why don't we accept their wishes? … It's spelled the same in English as in Spanish: N-O. No. No."
The divides were particularly stark among members of the House Republican leadership team. House Minority Leader John Boehner,R-Ohio, voted against the legislation. Meantime, House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, R-Va., and Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence, R-Ind., voted in favor.
Puerto Rico Gov. Luis Fortuno (R) cobbled together more than 50 Republican sponsors in favor of the package.
But there was drama as the majority Democrats narrowly avoided an upset on the House floor.
Republicans attempted to add provisions to the legislation that would have made English the official language of a potential Puerto Rican state.
Republicans also tried to modify the bill by banning any infringement of the Second Amendment in Puerto Rico.
The Democratic majority defeated the GOP effort, 198-194.
Fox News' John Brandt and Chad Pergram and The Associated Press contributed to this report.