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House Democrats pass D.C. statehood, launching bill into uncharted territory

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 4/22/2021 Meagan Flynn
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For the second time in history, the House passed legislation Thursday to make the District of Columbia the nation’s 51st state, bolstering momentum for a once-illusory goal that has become a pivotal tenet of the Democratic Party’s voting rights platform.

Democrats unanimously approved Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton’s Washington, D.C. Admission Act, describing it as a bid to restore equal citizenship to the residents of the nation’s capital and rectify a historic injustice.

Norton (D-D.C.) told colleagues before the 216-to-208 party-line vote that they had a “moral obligation” to pass the bill. “This Congress, with Democrats controlling the House, the Senate and the White House, D.C. statehood is within reach for the first time in history,” she said.

The bill, symbolically titled H.R. 51, now heads to the Senate, where proponents hope to break new ground — including a first-ever hearing in that chamber. Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) pledged Tuesday that “we will try to work a path to get [statehood] done,” and the White House asked Congress in a policy statement to pass the legislation as swiftly as possible.

But the political odds remain formidable, with the Senate filibuster requiring the support of 60 senators to advance legislation. Republicans, who hold 50 seats, have branded the bill as a Democratic power grab because it would create two Senate seats for the deep-blue city. Not even all Senate Democrats have backed the bill as the clock ticks toward the 2022 midterm election.

Still, the unprecedented support from Democrats nationwide, including in the White House, has energized supporters.

“We have a moment before us that has never existed for the statehood movement,” said Josh Burch, co-founder of Neighbors United for DC Statehood. “We can pat ourselves on the back and celebrate the House vote, and we should. But really that needs to be short-lived, because we have a lot of work to make this a reality in the next year and a half.”

[It’s not a local issue anymore: D.C. statehood moves from political fringe to the center of the national Democratic agenda]

The House passed the statehood bill for the first time last year, also without any Republican votes. Since then, sustained racial justice demonstrations and a broad focus on voting rights in the aftermath of the 2020 election have elevated the cause. Bringing their advocacy as far as Arizona and Alaska, groups such as 51 for 51 and Indivisible have described a city of second-class citizens, a plurality of whom are Black, living in the nation’s capital without any say in the nation’s laws.

a group of people wearing costumes: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) holds a news conference Wednesday at the Capitol Visitor Center, flanked by Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), left, and House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairwoman Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.). Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.) is at the far left. © Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) holds a news conference Wednesday at the Capitol Visitor Center, flanked by Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), left, and House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairwoman Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.). Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.) is at the far left.

Norton said this year’s vote felt even more significant than last year’s because awareness of the District’s plight seems to be growing. “It’s now begun to excite the country,” she said in an interview earlier this week.

In a statement, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said lawmakers who voted for statehood “made the decision to believe in a stronger, more inclusive democracy.”

“This vote comes at a critical time when Americans nationwide are eager to deliver on the promise of liberty and justice for all,” Bowser said. “For centuries, an incremental approach to equality in America has delayed this promise for too many. Now is the time for bold action.”

H.R. 51 would shrink the federal district to a two-square-mile enclave, including federal buildings such as the Capitol and the White House. The city’s other residential and commercial areas would become the state of Washington, Douglass Commonwealth, to honor abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

Democrats’ unity on the bill — only one member of the House caucus voted against it last year — completes an extraordinary evolution since the first statehood vote in 1993, when the majority of Democrats joined Republicans in voting no.

During debate Thursday morning, Republicans and Democrats traded accusations of partisanship, given the unavoidable reality that most District residents would be likely to vote for Democrats.

“So what?” said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.). “How somebody votes cannot be a test of whether they have the right to vote in a democracy.”

Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.) said D.C. statehood was “not really about voting representation” but was in fact “about Democrats consolidating their power in Washington.”

He and many others maintained that D.C. statehood would be unconstitutional, because the creation of a federal district and Congress’s authority over it is enshrined in the Constitution. (Democrats counter that argument by pointing out that H.R. 51 maintains Congress’s power over the shrunken federal district.)

“They don’t see taxation without representation,” Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) said of his GOP colleagues. “They don’t see military service without representation, when tens of thousands of people have served the nation in every war going back to the Revolutionary War. All that they see is two new liberal Democrat senators.”

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At one point, Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.) accused Republicans of racism in their opposition to statehood, recalling comments by GOP lawmakers that D.C. was not well-rounded or working-class enough to be a state, and lacked a landfill. On Thursday, Rep. Glenn Grothman (R-Wis.) said the city does not have manufacturing, agriculture or natural resources.

“I have had enough of my colleagues’ racist insinuations that somehow the people of Washington, D.C., are incapable or even unworthy of our democracy,” Jones said. “One of my House Republican colleagues said that D.C. couldn’t be a state because the district doesn’t have a landfill. My goodness, with all the racist trash my colleagues have brought to the debate, I can see whey they’re worried about having a place to put it.”

Republicans erupted, asking that Jones’s words be taken down. Jones agreed to withdraw them.

[National battle over voting rights fight moves to Texas]

Advocates and city leaders have largely focused on D.C. statehood as a racial justice and civil rights issue — “probably the most urgent voting rights issue of our time,” as 51 for 51 Director Stasha Rhodes put it.

Many proponents have drawn direct parallels between state Republicans’ efforts to enact more stringent laws restricting voting and federal Republicans’ opposition to statehood. Both result in fewer people having access to the franchise — in D.C., more than 712,000, according to Census Bureau estimates, 46 percent of whom are Black.

Advocates often point out that the District — once nicknamed “Chocolate City” for its thriving Black culture and majority population — would have the largest proportion of African Americans of any state.

“There’s a lot of lip service around how we’re going to move the needle on racial justice in our country,” Rhodes said. “The real way to move the needle is on structural democracy reform. There is no better step to start with than D.C. statehood.”

Bowser made racial justice a primary focus of her testimony in support of H.R. 51 before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform last month. Beverly Perry, her senior adviser, said in an interview that educating senators across the political spectrum about the role racism historically played in D.C.’s disenfranchisement has become a central part of the strategy to gain their support.

On Friday, she said, the mayor’s office emailed every senator a link to a new city-backed documentary, “Becoming Douglass Commonwealth,” and a report from a new nonprofit organization, Statehood Research DC, which examines how the growth of the city’s Black population in the Reconstruction era motivated congressional decisions to keep residents disenfranchised.

“When you look at the history of why this situation exists the way it does, it is grounded in racism. There’s nothing you can do but correct it,” Perry said. “At some point . . . we have to stop being partisan when it comes to racial issues.”

[How White fears of ‘Negro domination’ kept D.C. disenfranchised for decades] a man standing in front of a building: Wearing a customized mask, rEV. Jerry W. Jones, Jr., pastor at the Servants for Christ Baptist Church, joins other clergy on the steps of National City Christian Church to demand a vote on D.C. statehood legislation. © Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post Wearing a customized mask, rEV. Jerry W. Jones, Jr., pastor at the Servants for Christ Baptist Church, joins other clergy on the steps of National City Christian Church to demand a vote on D.C. statehood legislation.

Republican senators from less populous states have worried that D.C. statehood would “dilute” their states’ power, as Sen. Steve Daines (Mont.) put it this week. Some Republicans, such as Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.), have said they would prefer having D.C. retroceded to Maryland, which Maryland has not yet supported.

[Could D.C. become a state? Explaining the hurdles to statehood.]

Hopes of finding a way to pass the bill solely with Democratic support decreased this month, when Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) said he will resist all efforts to eliminate or weaken the filibuster.

Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.), sponsor of the Senate bill, said he will nevertheless ask Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, to schedule a hearing on the legislation as soon as this spring.

Carper said he is lobbying the Democratic caucus to support the bill, with only Manchin and Sens. Angus King (I-Maine) and Mark Kelly and Kyrsten Sinema, both of Arizona, outstanding.

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Sinema’s seat on Peters’s evenly divided committee makes her a possible linchpin vote. When asked for the senator’s position on statehood, a spokeswoman said Sinema “does not preview votes.”

Carper has been seeking advice from a longtime friend, former senator Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.), a Democrat turned independent who introduced a D.C. statehood bill in the Senate in 2012, two weeks before he retired. Carper said he would ask Lieberman to come testify.

When asked by a reporter Wednesday whether Lieberman could help change Republican minds, Graham, a longtime friend of Lieberman’s, said, “Zero chance.”

Norton said she remains hopeful that Democrats will find a way to seize on their thin Senate majority, and President Biden’s support, to pass statehood. But she acknowledged it could take years.

“Bills as extraordinary as this bill usually take more than a session or two to pass,” she said. “So we’re not at all discouraged.”

Burch, the longtime statehood advocate, knows the feeling.

Asked how he would celebrate the House vote on Thursday, he said, “By emailing and pestering a bunch of Senate offices.”

Correction: Earlier versions of this story incorrectly said then-Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman introduced the first D.C. statehood bill in the Senate in 2012. In fact, it was the first statehood bill introduced since 1993.

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