The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

House leadership gives its blessing to D.C. statehood

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) on Wednesday advocates for statehood for the District of Columbia at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

U.S. House leadership has endorsed statehood for the District of Columbia, including language in the first bill filed in the new Congress that backs the idea of allowing senators and a representative, all with full voting rights.

The Democratic-controlled House on Friday included statehood for the District in a sweeping package of voting rights, campaign finance and ethics reform. It was the first time in a generation that House leadership has endorsed the issue.

At the same time, newly sworn-in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) issued a lengthy statement in support of a separate statehood bill filed by Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), the District’s nonvoting representative.

“For too long, the residents of the District of Columbia have served our nation in uniform, paid taxes and contributed to the economic power and success of our country while being denied the full enfranchisement that is their right,” Pelosi said, calling statehood “a critical step in righting this historic wrong.”

But while that may have cheered those campaigning to make the District the 51st state, the chances for passage remain dim under Republican control of the Senate.

Still, Norton and statehood activists said they were making progress.

“This is a very different House,” Norton said at a news conference Friday on Capitol Hill.

Under her legislation, the District would have all the rights of the other 50 states, including two U.S. senators and, to start, one House member with full voting rights, which Norton lacks even when Democrats control the chamber.

She was joined by a defiant D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), who said the District’s more than 700,000 residents — more than the populations of Wyoming or Vermont — deserve the full rights that come with statehood.

“We demand that the Congress stay out of our business,” Bowser said. “And we know that we can fully achieve that by becoming the 51st state.”

A few people in the audience held up signs calling for “Statehood for the people of D.C.” Two symbolic shadow senators and a shadow representative — intended to show what the District is missing — stood silently behind the lectern.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), the new chairman of the House Oversight Committee, has said he will schedule a hearing and a markup, procedural hurdles needed to send the statehood bill to the floor.

Norton and five other delegates — from Puerto Rico, American Samoa, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands — are allowed to vote only on amendments with the full House, and only when Democrats control the chamber.

Even that right is limited because if the delegates’ votes swing the outcome, another vote must be taken without them.

Under Norton’s bill, the nation’s capital would be reduced to an enclave of about 2 square miles, including Capitol Hill, the Mall, principal federal monuments, the White House and the U.S. Supreme Court, which would remain under federal control.

The 41-page bill has 155 co-sponsors — more than any other measure introduced on the first day of the new Congress.

“An original co-sponsor is somebody that says there is no difference between Eleanor Holmes Norton and us,” Norton said. “We stand with her. . . . So we’re off and flying, and we’re going to make the most of it.”

Mindful of the political roadblocks ahead for full statehood, Norton is pushing for 16 piecemeal reforms she says would inch the District closer to parity with the states.

She wants to eliminate a 30-day congressional review period, during which lawmakers could alter or overturn laws passed by the D.C. Council, allow the District to prosecute local crimes and give the mayor the authority to deploy the District’s National Guard.

If the District is treated like a state, she argues, U.S. flags would be flown at half-staff when the mayor dies, as is done in states when governors die. U.S. District Court judges, the U.S. attorney and U.S. marshals for the District of Columbia also would be required to live in the District.

What Democratic control of the House means for D.C. statehood

The last time the House held a vote on statehood in 1993, it failed 277 to 153, with support from only 60 percent of Democrats and one Republican.

In hopes of a different outcome this year, Norton urged statehood advocates to focus on new members of Congress during their annual lobby day on Capitol Hill in February. The bill needs 218 votes to pass the House.

When Republicans were in control of the House, the chamber often passed laws intended to stymie the District’s autonomy — legislation that generally died in the Senate.

Conservative House members were especially irked by publicly subsidized abortion for low-income women, legal marijuana and assisted-suicide measures passed by the city’s liberal lawmakers.

“All of that is over today, my friends,” Norton said. “This has been the bad House, this has become the good House.”