Though largely expected, the vote injects another shot of momentum in Democrats’ favor as they seek to capitalize on their majorities in both chambers of Congress and control of the White House to push D.C. statehood further than it has gone before. Once a fringe issue, granting statehood to the city has become a central part of the party’s voting rights platform.
“Congress can no longer exclude D.C. residents from the democratic process, forcing residents to watch from the sidelines as Congress votes on laws that affect the nation or votes even on the laws of the duly elected D.C. government,” Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), the bill sponsor, said Wednesday. “Democracy requires much more.”
House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) announced last week that the House would vote on the bill the week of April 19.
Like last year, the bill is likely to face significant hurdles in the Senate. Because of the filibuster, the legislation needs the support of 60 senators to advance. Democrats hold 50 seats in that chamber, and Vice President Harris, a statehood supporter, can cast a tiebreaking vote. But not all Democratic senators have expressed support for the legislation.
Still, advocates have pointed to a record number of co-sponsors in the Senate and the House as indicators of what they say is the tremendous progress that the statehood cause has made since it first failed in the House nearly 30 years ago.
On Wednesday morning, two more senators signed on as co-sponsors, Sen. Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.) and Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.), bringing the total to 44.
Advocates have framed statehood as both a voting rights and racial justice issue in the plurality-Black city — a message that activists have taken to voters as far away as Arizona and Alaska.
On Friday, 51 Washington-area clergy leaders from diverse denominations plan to amplify that message with a demonstration in support of statehood to celebrate Emancipation Day — the date in 1862 that President Abraham Lincoln freed more than 3,000 enslaved people in the nation’s capital.
On Wednesday, the board of directors of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments unanimously passed its own resolution urging Congress “to establish the state of Washington, D.C. without delay.”
“It is time to right this 220-year-old wrong and finally end taxation without representation in Washington, D.C.,” said D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), who is a member of the council of governments. “We know that when Washington, D.C., becomes the 51st state, when we get a vote in the House and representation in the Senate, that will make our entire region stronger.”
At the Oversight hearing Wednesday, Republicans resorted to two main arguments against statehood: that it was a Democratic power grab and that it was unconstitutional. Democrats enlisted their resident constitutional-law expert, Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.), a former American University professor, to push back — at times in painstakingly technical detail.
The committee’s ranking Republican, Rep. James Comer (Ky.), suggested that Democrats wanted statehood so they could prioritize “defunding the police, packing the Supreme Court and enacting the Green New Deal.”
“Let’s be very clear what H.R. 51 is about: It’s all about creating two new Democratic Senate seats,” he said before name-dropping the nation’s top Democrats and referring to a group of liberal members of Congress whom Republicans love to target.
“This bill is part of the progressive pathway that President Biden, [Senate Majority] Leader Schumer and Speaker Pelosi have to reshape America into a socialist utopia that the squad talks about.”
Republicans offered numerous amendments. Rep. Jody Hice (Ga.) proposed returning D.C. residents’ the right to vote for members of the House and Senate — if they voted as residents of Maryland.
The amendment mirrored how voting worked in D.C. between 1790 and 1800, when D.C. residents could vote in federal elections as residents of either Virginia or Maryland, each of which had ceded land to create the capital city.
That system ended in 1801, when Congress stripped D.C. of its voting rights in federal elections and assumed full control of District affairs. (Residents of the city regained the right to vote for president in the 1960s, with the ratification of the 23rd Amendment.) Hice argued that his amendment would resolve the issue of taxation without representation.
“If H.R. 51 is not a power play for two more Democratic senators,” Hice said, “then this proposal ought to be a satisfactory solution.”
Norton noted that Hice’s amendment did not seek the agreement of the state of Maryland or its federal representatives — including two on the committee, Raskin and Rep. John Sarbanes (D), who were not particularly enthused.
“There is a powerful sense of identity among the residents of the District of Columbia,” Sarbanes said. “They built a cultural identity, they built a political identity, they have an allegiance to their community. Why should they have to trade that away in order to secure the right to vote?”
Hice’s amendment failed, as did the others offered by GOP lawmakers. Some sought more information about how D.C. would transition away from federal assistance in its criminal justice system, which city leaders have yet to fully explain.
Norton’s statehood bill provides a transition period in which the District would continue to receive some federal assistance — assistance that other new states also received. Some failed amendments tried to limit that assistance to 180 days, far shorter than the years of help provided to new states in the past.
The bill would shrink the federal district to a two-mile enclave that includes federal buildings such as the Capitol, Supreme Court and White House. The rest of the city’s residential and commercial areas would become the State of Washington, Douglass Commonwealth, honoring the abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
Responding to Republican arguments about a “Democratic power grab,” the committee chair, Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.), said: “The real power grab is denying 712,000 taxpaying American citizens the right to vote. … It’s outrageous, in my opinion, that Republicans would play partisan politics just to block 712,000 Americans from having full equality in our democracy.”