Congress expected to ignore Puerto Rico's vote for statehood

Congress is likely to respond to Puerto Rico's vote in favor of statehood with stony silence, and is not expected to undertake any effort to make Puerto Rico the 51st state.

Puerto Rico's vote to seek statehood with the United States seems historic on its face, since the island territory had never formally approved such a referendum. But congressional staffers said the numbers behind the vote, plus the related political circumstances under which it occurred, mean few in Congress are expected to see any pressing need to pass legislation related to the island's status.

On the numbers, Puerto Ricans voted 922,374-786,749 against the status quo of the island being a U.S. territory. With that hurdle cleared, 61 percent of voters chose statehood in a second question, and 39 percent picked other options.

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But the ballot did not include other non-statehood options, and hundreds of thousands of voters left blank their preferred choice. CNN reported this week that this flaw in the vote could mean that the option of statehood might still garner less than 50 percent of the vote, and could be near the 46 to 48 percent level of support that has been seen in past votes.

Republican and Democratic staffers in the House told The Hill this week that they are fully aware of these details, which is why the vote is not being seen in Congress as reason to start considering legislation for Puerto Rico's statehood. One House aide said the 61 percent vote in favor of statehood is seem by some in Congress as a "statistical fiction."

The political circumstances surrounding the vote are also being seen as real hurdles to making the island a U.S. state. Most importantly, Puerto Rican voters also decided to oust Republican Gov. Luis Fortuno, a strong supporter of statehood.

Fortuno was beaten by Alejandro Garcia Padilla, who wants Puerto Rico to remain a U.S. territory. This means that while Puerto Rico's non-voting Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi (D) will continue to push for statehood in the U.S. Congress, the effort is unlikely to go anywhere.

"The new government doesn't support statehood," one House aide said flatly, speaking of the new governor.

Pierluisi, who won reelection on Tuesday, told reporters this week that the statehood referendum means the U.S. Congress will "have to react." But his office did not respond to a request for comment about whether Pierluisi effectively lost his mandate to keep pursuing statehood when Garcia was elected.

Another House aide said some in Congress see the mandate for statehood as being significantly weakened because some believe it was only raised in an effort by Fortuno to draw more voters into the voting booths to help save his own reelection. This aide said that perception hurts Puerto Rico's case, since it makes the vote look like an attempt to engineer the outcome of the governor's race, rather than a sincere attempt to seek statehood.

"As a strategy, it failed miserably," this aide added, given that Fortuno lost his race anyway.

Puerto Rico faces other hurdles within the United States. Statehood for the island is an issue that Republicans tend to oppose, which makes it highly unlikely that House Republicans would advance the issue even if Puerto Rico were making a genuine push for this change.

The House voted 223-169 in favor of statehood in 2010, but that vote was held when Democrats controlled the chamber.

It's also unclear whether the Obama administration sees Puerto Rico's vote as an action-forcing event. The Obama administration assembled a task force on Puerto Rico's status, which released a report in 2010 that outlined several status options the island might pursue.

But the administration did not respond to a request for comment on how it sees the vote. The State Department, which participated in the task-force report, deferred questions to the White House.

Over the summer, the Democrats' 2012 political platform said Puerto Rico needs to decide for itself what change in status it should seek in relation to the United States. But it also said that if the Nov. 6 vote does not resolve the issue, the U.S. should set out a clear set of options for the island.

As of this week, at least, it's unclear whether the administration sees the Nov. 6 vote as providing clarity, or muddling the question even further.