In a cliffhanger roll call, the House on Wednesday night passed a bill by only one vote, 209 to 208, that would let Puerto Ricans vote on their island's destiny - statehood, independence or continued commonwealth status - a delicate and hotly debated question on the Caribbean island.
The self-determination bill, which must also be approved by the Senate, could pave the way for a congressionally approved referendum in Puerto Rico. If Puerto Ricans choose statehood, the legislation would compel Congress to vote on ushering in a 51st state as early as 1999, with actual admission into the union occurring no more than 10 years later.The razor-thin vote, which prompted rousing cheers from the crowd of Puerto Ricans jamming the House gallery, reflected the concerns of many members, who were lobbied vigorously by Puerto Ricans on both sides of the issue.
Some conservatives, who believe that the measure will lead to statehood, worried about the costs and the language differences, and opposed the bill because they did not believe that a majority of Puerto Ricans support statehood.
Some Democrats believed the measure was biased, stacked against commonwealth status and toward statehood. In the past, the idea of statehood has been intertwined with the notion that Puerto Rico would risk losing its cultural identity. There was also concern about the impact the measure would have on the size of Democratic congressional delegations, who may have to accommodate six new members if Puerto Rico becomes a state.
A little past 10 p.m., the vote was neck and neck as members on both sides of the issued lobbied their colleagues vigorously. It came down to the vote of a single member, Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D., who initially voted against the bill.
After he huddled with two ardent supporters of the bill - Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., and Carlos Romero-Barcelo, the House delegate from Puerto Rico - he returned to the front of the well and slammed a yes card on the table. Shouts erupted.
The final vote for passage was 43 Republicans, 165 Democrats and one independent.