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Lawmakers draft historic bill on Puerto Rico's territorial status

Fighting for Paradise: Puerto Rico's Future
CBS Reports | Fighting for Paradise: Puerto Rico's Future 27:03

A bipartisan group of lawmakers announced last week that they have agreed on a discussion draft for a bill that would allow Puerto Rico's residents to vote on the island's territorial status. The draft, which is set to be called the Puerto Rico Status Act, was announced by Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and its main sponsors, Rep. Nydia Velázquez and Puerto Rico's non-voting representative in Congress, Resident Commissioner Jenniffer Gonzalez-Colon. 

If passed in the House and Senate, the Puerto Rico Status Act would create and fund a process by which residents of the island would take a binding vote to determine the island's status in relation to the U.S. 

The ballot would not include the island's current territorial status, according to the draft. Voters would instead choose between three options: statehood, sovereignty in free association with the U.S., and independence. As the bill stands, Puerto Ricans would maintain their U.S. citizenship under all options for at least one generation.  

If Puerto Rico chooses statehood, the U.S. will begin the process of admitting it as the nation's 51st state, the draft says. If the island chooses free association, it will be independent but share some agreed-upon functions with the U.S. government — and if it chooses independence, it will control all aspects of its government.  

Velázquez, a Democrat from New York, called the bill a "historic opportunity to solve a centuries-old dilemma," referring to what Puerto Ricans across the political spectrum describe as a colonial relationship between the island and the states.  

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"This draft legislation represents a consensus among Members to find a path forward for the people of Puerto Rico to choose their own future," said Hoyer, a Democrat from Maryland.  

The 51-page-long document says a vote would take place on November 5, 2023. If no option earns a majority vote, there would be a runoff election in March 2024. 

This consensus comes after months of negotiations among parties, which had drafted and introduced two competing bills in the House of Representatives. 

The Self-Determination Act, sponsored by Velazquez and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, called for a status convention in Puerto Rico where residents would decide their political future. 

The opposing bill, the Puerto Rico Statehood Admission Act — sponsored by Reps. Daren Soto and Gonzalez-Colon — was focused on admitting the island as the 51st state. 

After years of opposition, the lawmakers agreed to come together under one bill. "The main difference between this bill and the others in passing… is that there's a real desire for decolonization of the island," Gonzalez-Colon, a Republican, told CBS News.  

"We are finally here to end second-class citizenship… we should honor a decolonization process where the people of Puerto Rico get to choose," Ocasio-Cortez said at Thursday's press conference. 

As chairman of the House Natural Resource Committee, which manages all issues related to Puerto Rico, Rep. Raul Grijalva is set to visit the island  in June to meet with political leaders and discuss the draft. 

The expectation is to have the Puerto Rico Status Act introduced in the summer, Gonzalez-Colon told CBS News.   

"We've been waiting for more than 124 years to solve our political status and finally getting an agreement that should allow Congress to vote on this is a matter of time," she said. "So I'm not concerned about a change of Congress. Actually, that's the reason I believe that we should move forward with this during the summer. And of course, put the pressure on the Senate side."  

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