Political leaders hailed as a milestone last week President Bush's statement that Puerto Ricans should vote on whether they want the Caribbean island to remain a U.S. commonwealth, become the 51st state or be independent.

"We are living a historic moment in Puerto Rico," said Gov. Rafael Hernandez Colon. "I give the words of President Bush my warmest welcome."Hernandez Colon, who leads the Popular Democratic Party, and other island politicians have been lobbying in Washington in support for a plebiscite so Puerto Rico's 3.3 million people can vote on their political future.

Bush said in an address to Congress Thursday night: "I have long believed that the people of Puerto Rico should have the right to determine their own political future. Personally I favor statehood. But I ask the Congress to take the necessary steps to let the people decide in a referendum."

His statement followed a joint call on Jan. 17 by Puerto Rico's three main political parties - divided over the status issue - for congressional support for a plebiscite. They asked Congress to pass legislation guaranteeing the United States would honor the election results, whatever the outcome.

"The people of Puerto Rico have not been formally consulted by the United States as to their choice of their ultimate political status," they said in a statement.

Pedro Rosello, vice president of the New Progressive Party, which advocates statehood, said the statement "is the type of message we were expecting from President Bush. When the president says he is in favor of the process and asks for congressional cooperation, it gives a seriousness to the issue which never before existed."

Ruben Berrios, who as leader of the Independence Party favors breaking ties binding Puerto Rico to the United States, also welcomed Bush's statement.

"The actual status is unjustifiable because the United States can't continue supporting colonialism in Puerto Rico," he said.

Hernandez Colon's Popular Democratic Party supports the commonwealth arrangement but wants Washington to relinquish control over immigration and foreign trade.

The emotional status issue has dominated the governor's agenda. The three party leaders are to meet in Washington soon with key House and Senate committee leaders.

In a 1967 referendum, 60 percent of Puerto Ricans favored the commonwealth status, 39 wanted statehood and 1 percent voted for independence.