Puerto Rican independence bill goes to U.S. House vote on Thursday

FILE PHOTO: People participate in teachers' protest in San Juan

By Moira Warburton

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Puerto Ricans could move a step closer to a referendum on whether the island should become a U.S. state, an independent country or have another type of government when the House of Representatives votes Thursday on a bill outlining the process.

A House committee approved the Puerto Rico Status Act on Wednesday, paving the way for the full House vote.

The legislation lays out terms of a plebiscite as well as three potential self-governing statuses - independence, full U.S. statehood or sovereignty with free association with the United States. The latter is in place in Micronesia, Palau and the Marshall Islands.

Puerto Rico, which has about 3.3 million people and high rates of poverty, became a U.S. territory in 1898. Activists have campaigned for greater self-determination including statehood for decades.

There have been six referendums on the topic since the 1960s, but they were nonbinding. Only Congress can grant statehood.

"After 124 years of colonialism Puerto Ricans deserve a fair, transparent, and democratic process to finally solve the status question," Representative Nydia Velazquez, a Democratic cosponsor of the bill, said on Twitter.

The Caribbean island's citizens are Americans but do not have voting representation in Congress, cannot vote in presidential elections, do not pay federal income tax on income earned on the island and do not have the same eligibility for some federal programs as other U.S. citizens.

If the bill passes the House, it will need 60 votes in the closely divided Senate and Democratic President Joe Biden's signature to become law.

The legislation has the support of lawmakers of both parties and Puerto Rican officials.

But time is running out as lawmakers have a full agenda before a vacation at the end of next week. A new Congress with a Republican-controlled House will be sworn in on Jan. 3, at which point any legislative process would have to start over.

(Reporting by Moira Warburton in Washington; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)