The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

D.C. leaders herald Senate statehood bill despite steep odds

Kelsye Adams, the DC Vote program director, protests at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 to demand D.C. statehood. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)
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Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.) gathered with Mayor Muriel E. Bowser and D.C. leaders on Tuesday to reintroduce a bill to give nearly 700,000 D.C. residents statehood, pushing the long-sought goal in a year marking the 50th anniversary of the city’s limited home rule — but also in a year when statehood has virtually no chance of succeeding.

Carper, a D.C. ally and the Senate co-sponsor of the statehood bill, acknowledged what he called the “elephant in the room”: “With Republicans in charge in the House, our work to pass this bill is even more challenging.”

But Carper framed the struggle for statehood as a moral one and said he and his allies — including Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C. ), Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and D.C. Council Chair Phil Mendelson (D) ― would stick to it despite the steep odds. “The fact that more than half a million Americans live in the District of Columbia and are denied a single voting representative in Congress is clearly a historic wrong, and justice demands that it be addressed,” he said.

Reflecting on 50 years of limited home rule, Bowser and D.C. leaders described the progress the city has made on D.C. statehood, an idea that once lived on the political fringe but has now twice passed the House of Representatives in recent years. Still, the path to statehood remains pocked with political roadblocks, including in the Democratic-controlled Senate — probably the only place advocates have a chance to push the envelope as D.C. remains entirely on defense in the House.

"It's not a fringe issue anymore': D.C. statehood moves from political fringe to the center of the national Democratic agenda

While statehood will almost certainly not see progress in the House this session, Bowser said the threat of Republican interference in local government — which has begun anew this year — only underscored the consequences of the city’s lack of statehood. Thanks to a provision in the Constitution, Congress has oversight of the city’s laws and budget.

“In the last several years, we have been reminded of the of how limited home rule can be,” Bowser said, noting Republican-led budget riders have restricted D.C. from creating a legal recreational marijuana market or subsidizing abortion for low-income women. “So like my congresswoman and 700,000 Washingtonians, some born here and some who made D.C. their chosen home, this is personal. It’s personal because we’re we are Americans just like everybody else.”

Van Hollen argued that statehood is the only way to fully protect the city from Congress intervening in its local affairs, and he promised to try to serve as a firewall in the Senate against House Republicans’ efforts to target D.C.

So far, House Republicans have vowed to try to block a city bill giving noncitizens the right to vote in local elections in the city, as well as a once-in-a-century overhaul of the D.C. criminal code. Bowser had vetoed that legislation, opposing certain provisions including lower maximum sentences for some crimes such as carjackings, burglaries and robberies. The council overrode her veto. Some including Mendelson worried that her veto could embolden Congress to want to block the legislation — but Bowser said at the news conference that Congress should stay out of it.

“Any changes that we want to see in that legislation we handle” through the council, she said.

House Republicans’ resolutions of disapproval seeking to block D.C. legislation are likely to face an uphill climb in the Senate. But Van Hollen noted that budget riders — like those Bowser mentioned — are trickier. Republicans could try to slip provisions into spending bills restricting how D.C. can spend its local money, and riders have been historically difficult for Democrats to remove, even when they are in control.

“That illustrates the fundamental challenge we’ve got here, which is why we’ve got to keep pushing for the statehood bill,” Van Hollen said.

The statehood bill — the Washington, D.C., Admission Act — would make almost all land within the existing District the 51st state, while preserving a smaller federal enclave, including buildings such as the White House and Capitol, as a federal district. D.C. would take on all the responsibilities of all the other states after a transition period, and it would have full representation in Congress.

D.C. braces for barrage of Republican intervention in local governance

When Democrats controlled Congress last session and the House passed statehood legislation, the bill got a hearing in the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee — but not a vote. Asked at the news conference why it did not get a vote, Carper, a senior member of the committee, noted that the Senate had its hands full with a number of other large-scale legislative packages, though he said he believed the chamber may have less on its plate this term.

“I don’t know if it’s going to get a vote in the committee or in the full Senate, but I know this: We’re not going to give up,” he said. “This is the right thing to do. We are going to change this however long it takes.”

A spokesman for the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee said Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), its chairman, “supports the bill, and is staying up to date with the bill’s lead sponsors as they work to build support for the legislation.”

The city’s strategy for progress on gaining support for statehood is for now unclear. Beverly Perry, a special adviser to the mayor, said in an interview that she has yet to meet with Bowser to discuss how the city should expend funds on statehood advocacy as talks for the fiscal year 2024 budget begin. She said she plans to discuss that strategy with the mayor soon. In recent years, the city has launched digital advertising in Arizona and West Virginia — where Democrats were trying to woo Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) to the statehood cause — as part of an education campaign pointing out that D.C. does not have a vote in Congress. Perry said the city plans to broaden that campaign in more states.

Democrats have also included D.C. as part of their broader push to expand voting rights, noting that D.C. is a plurality-Black city whose residents are disenfranchised.

The Senate bill attained a record 45 co-sponsors in the last Congress, though several holdouts in the Democratic caucus, namely Manchin, deflated hopes that statehood could succeed, even if the filibuster were eliminated.

Norton introduced her House statehood bill on the first day bills could be filed, with 165 original co-sponsors and growing. “We dare to believe that statehood for the residents of the nation’s capital is finally on the horizon,” Norton said at the news conference.