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Puerto Rico votes for statehood but Congress looks unlikely to agree

A narrow majority of Puerto Ricans have voted once again to seek statehood, but their wish is hardly guaranteed to come true in the foreseeable future.

It will be up to Congress and the president to follow through and negotiate the terms of a switch for the island, which has essentially become the world's oldest colony during a dozen decades as a second-class territory of the United States. Proponents say changing that would erase a big blemish on the global reputation of American democracy.

Because the Senate looks increasingly likely to remain under Republcian control, though, prospects for a statehood bill next year look very dim no matter who is president. President Trump is no fan of the idea, believing it would mean more Democrats in Congress. And former Vice President Joe Biden would lack sufficient Democratic support on Capitol Hill to push through statehood for either Puerto Rico or much bluer Washington, D.C.

Tuesday's referendum secured the "yes" votes of 52 percent in nearly complete returns, a victory margin of about 50,000 votes. The island has voted for statehood twice before in the past decade, but neither plebiscite prompted congressional action.

Statehood supporters came to believe something would be different this time, on the assumption of a lopsided Biden win and a decisive Democratic sweep of Congress — neither of which materialized.

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Legislation would be required to end the commonwealth arrangement of the past 70 years: Puerto Ricans are American citizens who are mainly exempt from federal income taxes, although they must pay Social Security and Medicare taxes. The island has significant autonomy, but in return it gets much less federal aid than the states and has no electoral votes or voting members of Congress.

With a population of 3.2 million, Puerto Rico would rank 31st in population among states, and like half a dozen others would elect four House members and a pair of senators. At least at the outset, its complex political alignments would mean it looks relatively purple. But at a minimum it could be counted on to send more non-white lawmakers to Washington.

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