“I was enraged by the fact that the District of Columbia was going to be shortchanged,” Van Hollen said in an interview. “I immediately talked to Senator [Charles E.] Schumer about it and was told that the Republicans had insisted on the formula the way it was in the bill.”
Asked why the District is not treated like a state in the bill, a spokesman for Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said: “Because Washington, D.C., is not a state. One can debate whether or not it should be, but that’s a separate discussion.”
The spokesman, Michael Zona, noted that although some Democratic senators objected to the D.C. funding formula, the 600-page relief bill passed the Senate unanimously.
“No one was trying to ‘shortchange’ any particular jurisdiction,” he said in a statement. “It’s unfortunate that some voices are attempting to inject partisanship into a bipartisan desire to provide broad relief during a pandemic.”
But D.C. officials and advocates, who are accustomed to Republicans targeting the city over social issues such as guns, marijuana and abortion, said denying the District money to fight a public health crisis takes political gamesmanship to a new level.
“It was curious that in this bill they decided to treat the District of Columbia in a very discriminatory way,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a news conference Thursday morning. “It really makes no sense unless you have some other motivation.”
The bill, passed late Wednesday in the Senate, calls for the District and five U.S. territories to divide $3 billion by population, giving the District about $500 million — less than half of the minimum $1.25 billion guaranteed to each state, officials said.
As of Thursday evening, the District had 271 known cases of covid-19, which is more than the five territories combined and more than 18 states, according to data gathered by The Washington Post.
The entirely urban nature of the District also means the virus has a better chance of spreading among residents living in rowhomes and apartments than in the suburbs and rural communities of neighboring Virginia and Maryland, D.C. officials say.
Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) — who raised the issue on a call with President Trump and the nation’s governors Thursday, according to a person on the call who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the talks — said the funding slight illustrates the need for the District to achieve statehood, including full representation in Congress.
“Every state that has two senators was treated the exact same,” the mayor said in a news conference. “We don’t have two senators. And it matters not having two senators. And that’s why we have pushed so hard for statehood.”
She added, “There will be a lot of intrigue behind whose motives got us to this point.”
Spokespeople for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Schumer (D-N.Y.) did not respond to requests for comment Thursday.
Under Democratic control, the House is likely to vote on D.C. statehood legislation this year, for the first time in a generation. Lawmakers are expected to pass the bill, mostly along partisan lines. But McConnell has said the bill will go nowhere in the majority-Republican Senate, and he called the concept of D.C. statehood “full-bore socialism.”
“It was clearly intentional,” Van Hollen said of the decision to designate the District as a territory. “I don’t know all the motivations, except we do know Republicans are opposed to giving the people of the District of Columbia voting rights in the U.S. House and Senate.”
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), the District’s nonvoting representative in the House, said the District has a better chance for full funding in the next round of virus-related relief if the bill starts in the House.
“Whoever over there [in the Senate] decided we should be lumped in with the territory has really defied precedent,” she said in an interview.
D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine (D) organized 36 fellow attorneys general, including 10 Republicans, to write a letter to the president and legislative leaders asking for the District to receive at least $1.25 billion in funds.
“Given the District’s connections to nearby states, jeopardizing the ability to respond to the crisis puts not only District residents but all Americans at an increased risk,” the letter says.
The District has been used as bargaining chip in previous congressional negotiations. During a budget standoff in 2011, then-President Barack Obama agreed to language prohibiting the city from using local money to give low-income women access to elective abortions after House Republicans sought restrictions on federal funding for Planned Parenthood.
Despite decades of fighting for D.C. autonomy on policy matters, Bo Shuff, executive director of the statehood advocacy group DC Vote, said allies of the District never anticipated such tactics during a global pandemic.
“It’s not something we had on our radar to worry about, to be honest,” he said. “This is a new and different level than we’ve seen before.”