Despite Referendum, Puerto Rico Statehood Unlikely Until At Least 2015

A split Congress is unlikely to grant the Democratic-leaning Commonwealth statehood.

A supporter of Alejandro Garcia Padilla, candidate for governor of the Popular Democratic Party, cheers during his closing campaign rally in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Nov. 4, 2012.
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Tuesday, for the first time in its history, more Puerto Ricans favored becoming a state than maintaining the island's status quo as a U.S. Commonwealth. But put away the needle and thread for now — it'll likely be at least 2015 before America sews a 51st state onto its flag.

Adding a state to the union is a fairly easy process, legally speaking. Article Four of the Constitution allows Congress to admit new states into the union with simple majority votes in both houses of Congress (and a Presidential signature). Puerto Rico is a United States territory without its own sovereignty, so technically Congress doesn't even need the island's approval.

By a vote of 54-46 percent on Tuesday, Puerto Ricans, in a non-binding referendum, said that they would like to change their Commonwealth status. In a second question, 61 percent said they would support statehood, 33 percent said they'd like a new pact with the United States, and just 5 percent said they'd like to become independent. The last time Puerto Ricans were asked about their feelings on statehood, in 1998, a majority opposed becoming a state.

In March, President Obama wrote he is "firmly committed to the principle that the question of political status is a matter of self-determination for the people of Puerto Rico," and would presumably support Puerto Rican statehood.

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Politically, there's little chance of Puerto Rico becoming the 51st state with a split Congress. Puerto Ricans in the United States vote overwhelmingly for Democrats, and elected officials in Puerto Rico are nearly always Democrats, so House Republicans have little reason to approve a Puerto Rican statehood bill.

"While they have different party names in Puerto Rico, they're usually one shade of Democrat or another," John Hudak, a governance studies fellow at the Brookings Institution, says of the island's politics.

That becomes troublesome with a Republican-controlled House, Hudak says. The situation is similar to one in 2009, where a compromise was nearly struck between House Democrats and Republicans that would have given Washington, D.C., a voting member of Congress. The compromise would have added two House seats, with the second going to a newly created (and likely conservative) district in Utah.

That deal ultimately failed, and Puerto Rican statehood is even more problematic. With statehood, Puerto Rico would get a voting member in the House and two Senators.

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"If it became a state, it would gain seats in the House—that could be offset by expanding the size of the House so Republican states got more members," Hudak says. "But there's no solution to the two Democratic Senators they'd send, and there's no Congressional remedy to offset that. That, and they'd get additional electoral college votes. Those are the dealbreakers."

That doesn't mean the dream of Puerto Rican statehood is dead. If Democrats are able to take back the House and hold onto the Senate in the 2014 elections, Puerto Rican statehood is an issue that could be tackled. Even if Democrats don't have a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, Hudak says that with the opening of the new Congress in 2015, the Senate could pass a rules package that prohibits the filibustering of statehood bills.

"There's a politically strategic way to get this done," he says.

With Tuesday's vote, Hudak says that if Democrats make gains in 2015, they have an easy mandate to follow through with statehood.

"Given the referendum, we might find that this moves quickly in the House if the Democrats take the House back," he says. "As I understand it, this is a clear signal to Congress that they're ready, and that's typically what Congress looks for."

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  • Jason Koebler is a science and technology reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at jkoebler@usnews.com.