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Trump White House officially opposes D.C. statehood ahead of historic vote

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) speaks about the statehood bill this month.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) speaks about the statehood bill this month. (Amanda Voisard for The Washington Post)

President Trump’s advisers would recommend that he veto the D.C. statehood bill if it reached his desk, according to a White House policy statement issued Wednesday afternoon as House lawmakers debated the legislation.

Although Trump recently told the New York Post that Republicans would be “very, very stupid” to allow the deep-blue city to become a state and elect two senators, the statement marks the first time his administration has taken an official position on the legislation.

Advocates of statehood are eagerly awaiting the first House floor vote on the issue since 1993 on Friday and expect the chamber’s Democratic majority to pass such a bill for the first time in history.

Democrats — led by Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s nonvoting representative — said the District’s 705,000 residents deserve voting rights and all the benefits of statehood because they pay more federal taxes than residents of 22 states and D.C. residents have fought in every American war.

The bill has 226 House co-sponsors, more than enough to pass, and 40 co-sponsors in the Senate.

However, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) objects to statehood and said he would not bring it up for a floor vote, effectively killing the legislation this session. Even if Democrats took control of the Senate, they would need 60 votes for the bill to overcome a likely filibuster.

During the debate Wednesday before the House Rules Committee, Norton, the chief statehood advocate in Congress since she took office in 1991, said the bill was deeply personal for her.

“My great-grandfather Richard Holmes, who escaped as a slave from a Virginia plantation, made it as far as D.C., a walk to freedom but not to equal citizenship,” she said. “For three generations my family has been denied the rights other Americans take for granted.”

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

Republicans, on the other hand, said that the creation of the new state would require a constitutional amendment and that the state would have undue influence over the federal government. They also accused D.C. of being unprepared to handle the responsibilities of a state.

“The District is not prepared to shoulder the burden of statehood,” said Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.). “This would apply economically, fiscally as well as a host of other ways.”

He pointed to the recent demonstrations against police brutality in the District — and the federal response — to justify his position.

Hice said protesters initially were “rioting and looting from Georgetown to Foggy Bottom down H street.” He credited Attorney General William P. Barr with “quelling the unrest” by deploying federal riot teams June 1 to clear the area around Lafayette Square.

“This is just one example of federal intervention compared to [the D.C. police], where they could not quell the violence taking place in the District, proving once again how fundamental the federal government is in Washington, D.C., in maintaining order and civility,” Hice said.

Democrats were aghast at the comment and pointed out that Barr’s actions against peaceful protesters allowed Trump to walk unimpeded to St. John’s Episcopal Church, where he held a Bible aloft and had his picture taken.

Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) said: “That was a peaceful protest. What the president did was trample on the constitutional rights of those protesters for a photo op.”

He questioned the notion that authorities’ use of gas and projectiles against citizens qualified as quelling unrest. “Give me a break,” said McGovern, who is chairman of the House Rules Committee. “That is going to go down in history as one of the low points of this presidency.”

In fact, statehood advocates say the incident illustrated the need for the District to control its own affairs, which are subject to the scrutiny of Congress, and for the mayor to lead the D.C. National Guard.

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Because the District is not a state, bills passed by the D.C. Council and signed by the mayor must pass congressional muster before becoming law, a step that has blocked the city from using local tax dollars to subsidize abortion for low-income women and from spending money to regulate the sale of marijuana.

The statehood bill, H.R. 51, introduced by Norton, would shrink the seat of the federal government to a two-square-mile enclave, including the White House, Capitol Hill, the Supreme Court and other federal buildings. The rest of the District would become known as the State of Washington, Douglass Commonwealth.

Republicans will offer several amendments to the bill, including one that would require the District to pay the costs of becoming a state.

They note the federal government pays more than $1 billion annually to fund Medicaid and much of the city’s criminal justice system — including the courts, prison services and supervision of offenders released into the community. It is unclear who would pay those costs if the statehood bill was enacted.

The Congressional Budget Office has said it would cost about $3 million over 10 years to pay for two additional senators’ salaries and offices. Norton — or her successor — would become a full voting member of Congress, and the cost of that office would not change.

Statehood should not significantly increase funding for federal assistance programs for D.C. residents, because the District in general is already treated like a state for those allocations, the CBO said. A notable exception arose this year when the District was treated like a territory for the purposes of coronavirus relief funding, meaning it received about $750 million less than the minimum payments that states received.

Other changes — such as updating websites, printed materials and flags — associated with a new state would cost less than $500,000 over the next few years, the CBO found.

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

At the time, the District was grappling with a high murder rate and was on the verge of bankruptcy and the statehood movement had far less support in Congress than it has today.

An earlier version of this story misstated the amount of money the District received in the federal coronavirus relief package. It received about $750 million less than the minimum payments that states received.

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