This was a vote on an amendment by Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC) allowing Puerto Rico to choose to continue its current status as a commonwealth, or territory. The underlying bill required Puerto Rico to hold a referendum on whether to become a state, an independent nation, or a sovereign entity that "freely associates" with the United States. (If Puerto Rico chose to freely associate with the United States, it would essentially become a self-governing entity, but not an independent nation.) Foxx's amendment would have allowed for a fourth option -- continuing Puerto Rico's current commonwealth status. (The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico is currently a territory of the United States. Since it is not a state, Puerto Rico lacks representation in the United States Senate. While Puerto Rico does elect a delegate to the House, that delegate lacks the full voting rights enjoyed by House members from the 50 states.)
The underlying bill provided that the referendum determining Puerto Rico’s future would take place in two stages. First, voters would choose between maintaining the status quo, and changing the nature of Puerto Rico’s relationship with the United States. Specifically, voters could choose between the following two options: “(1) Puerto Rico should continue to have its present form of political status. If you agree, mark here XX. (2) Puerto Rico should have a different political status. If you agree, mark here XX.”
If a majority of voters chose the second option – to change Puerto Rico’s political status – a second referendum would be held. That referendum would allow Puerto Ricans to vote for independence, statehood, or free association.
Foxx urged support for her amendment: "[Under the bill,]…Puerto Ricans choose only from three options: statehood, independence, or sovereignty in association with the United States. These three options deny supporters of continuing the Commonwealth status quo the freedom to vote for their preferred political status. Whether they support statehood, independence, or the Commonwealth status quo, Puerto Ricans' views should be given equal and fair consideration. My amendment very simply adds a fourth option: 'Commonwealth: Puerto Rico should continue to have its present form of political status to the available voting options for the second stage of the plebiscite.'"
Rep. Nick Rahall (D-WV) urged opposition to Foxx's amendment: "this bill was carefully crafted to give the people of Puerto Rico the opportunity to inform Congress for the first time ever whether they want to continue with their current temporary status, Commonwealth, or move to a permanent status: statehood, independence, or free association. This amendment would subvert this effort by including a choice to continue the island's present status among the options provided for in the bill's second plebiscite (referendum). Adoption of this amendment will contradict the bill's intent and make it less likely that the people of Puerto Rico would seek a permanent nonterritorial status."
The House agreed to Foxx's amendment by a vote of 223-179. 149 Republicans and 74 Democrats voted "yea." 160 Democrats -- including a majority of the most progressive members -- voted "nay." As a result, the House agreed to an amendment allowing Puerto Rico to choose to continue its current commonwealth status, in addition to allowing it to choose statehood, independence, or sovereignty in "free association" with the United States.