“I am heartened that our police and guardspeople were able to get control of the building and that our lawmakers went back into that building to vote,” Bowser said. “I’m upset that 706,000 residents of the District of Columbia did not have a single vote in that Congress yesterday, despite the fact that our people were putting their lives on the line to protect our democracy.”
Propelled by the historic passage of a statehood bill last summer in the Democratic-majority House, advocates have pointed to Democratic control of the White House and the Senate as the necessary building blocks for the bill to become law.
The victories of Georgia Democratic Sens.-elect Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock — who both support D.C. statehood — mean the Senate is split 50-50 between Republicans and Democrats, with Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris able to cast tie-breaking votes. Both Harris and President-elect Joe Biden support statehood.
Bowser said Thursday that she wants a statehood bill on the president’s desk within his first 100 days in office. She also urged Congress to strip the power to control the D.C. National Guard from the president and give it to the D.C. mayor, citing delays and confusion over mobilizing the Guard to deal with Wednesday’s unrest. In states, governors have the power to mobilize their National Guard units.
But despite the Democratic gains, the road to statehood, for now, remains full of potholes.
Senate Republicans oppose D.C. statehood, in part because it would almost certainly bring two more Democratic senators to the chamber. Because of the Senate’s filibuster option, which triggers a requirement for 60 votes to pass legislation, Democratic control of the body is not good enough.
To advance, statehood legislation would need to draw the support of 10 Republicans — unless the Senate votes, as some are pushing for, to eliminate the filibuster. But many Democrats and Republicans oppose removing the filibuster, believing it encourages bipartisanship.
“Democratic control of the Senate moves us light-years,” said D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s longtime nonvoting representative to Congress, who has introduced a statehood bill every session since 1991. However, “it doesn’t move us to statehood just like that.”
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who is expected to become majority leader, has previously said he would make D.C. statehood among his top priorities for expanding voting rights. He did not rule out the elimination of the filibuster when questioned at a news conference Wednesday.
And House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), whose decision to relinquish his long-standing opposition to statehood last May paved the way for its House passage, pledged to bring statehood to the floor for a vote again this session.
In a statement to The Washington Post, Hoyer also pointed to Wednesday’s breach of the Capitol as adding urgency to the statehood cause.
“The events of Wednesday and the unprecedented assault on the Capitol building and the city further illustrates the critical need to grant statehood to the District of Columbia,” Hoyer said. “It is wholly unacceptable that the 700,000 American citizens who reside in the District do not have the same rights as their neighbors in Virginia and Maryland based solely on where they live.”
Adam Jentleson, who was a top aide to former senator Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), said Democrats’ best opportunity to eliminate the filibuster may come during Biden’s first two years in office, if Republicans repeatedly obstruct his agenda.
“They’re going to have a hard time getting things done, and they’ll basically have to choose between reforming the filibuster or getting nothing done in the first two years of the Biden administration,” Jentleson said.
Paul Frymer, a politics professor at Princeton University, said one way to “lure” moderate Republicans into warming up to D.C. statehood would be to push equally for Puerto Rican statehood — if Republicans could be convinced Puerto Rico could potentially lean red, despite its different political landscape.
“The Republican Party is at a crossroads right now,” said Frymer, whose book “Building An American Empire” explores statehood debates throughout history, “and one direction would be to push much harder on Puerto Rican outreach.”
During the Georgia runoff election that put Warnock and Ossoff into power, however, the Republican Party appeared intent on turning both D.C. and Puerto Rican statehood into boogeyman issues to rile up GOP voters.
The issue of statehood appeared in ads and was featured on the stage at campaign rallies — which Norton said she “loved,” believing it only raised awareness of Washington’s lack of voting rights.
“The Schumer, Pelosi, Ossoff change? Defund police. Voting rights for illegal immigrants. Washington, D.C. as the 51st state,” warned one of the first ads by former senator David Perdue, who lost to Ossoff.
Frymer said there are clear racial undertones to opposing statehood, since Puerto Rico is primarily Hispanic and Washington is 46 percent Black. Republicans in Congress suggested last summer that Washington is not home to “real” Americans, comments that were condemned as racist.
Race, Frymer said, also loomed large in many of the nation’s previous statehood debates, namely for states with large Native American populations such as Oklahoma and New Mexico.
The question, he said, is whether enough moderates — including Biden — will go out on a limb to push statehood loudly as a moral issue without fear of political consequences.
“Is Biden going to see this as a moment of great opportunity in pushing a strong agenda?” Frymer said. “Or is he going to see this as a point of caution,” believing that pushing the issue would put vulnerable Democrats at risk.
There has been far less focus in recent years on the issue of legislation to transfer control of the D.C. National Guard, though Norton has introduced bills to do so without success.
At her news conference on Thursday, Bowser made clear that even if she had direct control of the Guard, she would not have been able to deploy them to the U.S. Capitol without the invitation of federal authorities.
Still, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) said the episode illustrates why D.C. deserves statehood.
“There’s no question the mayor’s inability to directly and immediately redeploy the National Guard inhibited public safety and our ability to help protect the Capitol and that’s because we don’t have statehood,” Mendelson said. “Congress has historically been afraid that the District is going to be the threat — the locals are going to be the threat — and if anything, the local government was critical in helping to restore order to the Capitol.”