House to vote on bill to admit Washington, D.C., as 51st state

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The U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. (August 2019)

Washington — The House will vote Thursday on a bill to admit Washington, D.C., as the 51st state, although the measure is likely to fail in the evenly divided Senate.

For the bill’s advocates, D.C. statehood is a civil rights issue. The district has a population of more than 700,000 people, larger than the population of Wyoming or Vermont. But while those two states each have two senators and a representative in the House, D.C. has no voting representation in Congress. Eleanor Holmes Norton represents D.C. in Congress as a non-voting delegate.

Statehood advocates also point out that D.C. pays more in federal taxes than 21 states and more per capita than any state, according to 2019 IRS data. The district is also diverse, with a population that is 46% Black and majority nonwhite. If admitted, it would be the first state with a plurality Black population.

The legislation, titled H.R. 51, would create the State of Washington, Douglass Commonwealth, named after Frederick Douglass. It would give D.C. two U.S. senators and a voting representative in the House, like every other state. The bill would also cordon off the White House, U.S. Capitol and National Mall to remain under federal control as the seat of the U.S. government.

The House approved a D.C. statehood measure by a vote of 232 to 180 last year, but it did not get a vote in the Senate, which was then controlled by Republicans. Although Democrats now hold a 50-seat majority, most legislation requires 60 votes to advance, and this bill is unlikely to garner support from 10 Republicans. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has committed to bringing the measure to the floor for a vote, but a motion to move forward with the legislation would almost certainly fail.

Many D.C. statehood supporters are pushing the Senate to eliminate the filibuster, which would allow measures to advance with a simple majority. But this would require support from all 50 Democrats in the Senate, with Vice President Kamala Harris casting the tie-breaking vote. Two Democrats say they won’t support it — all but dooming the prospects for H.R. 51.

In a press conference Wednesday promoting H.R. 51, Norton expressed confidence that the legislation has a chance in the Senate, saying that she does “believe that the filibuster is on its way out.”

Appearing at the press conference Wednesday, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said that the Senate will “have a decision to make a good judgment” when the legislation comes to the floor.

“We believe in good policy for our country and hope that the Senate will act on behalf of the people,” Hoyer said.

Dr. Ravi Perry, the chair of the political science department at Howard University and a board member of D.C. Vote, an advocacy group supporting statehood, noted in an interview with CBS News that many of the Black families who live in the district have been here for generations. Perry noted many of the iconic federal buildings in Washington, like the White House and the Capitol, were built by Black workers and slaves — but the District-dwelling descendants of those laborers don’t enjoy all the privileges represented by those “beacons of democracy.”

“They look at those buildings built by Black folks, built by slaves, and they see hope,” Perry said about the district’s Black residents. “And they know every single day when they wake up that they don’t have those same rights [as other Americans].”

Congress has exclusive jurisdiction over Washington, which means local legislation, including the D.C. budget, must be approved by Congress. This can have controversial side effects when D.C. residents make decisions that are blocked or overturned by Congress. D.C. voters approved Initiative 71 in 2014, which allows adults to grow, possess and gift marijuana. However, Congress has blocked the district from allowing marijuana sales by attaching a rider to D.C.’s appropriations bill to prevent it from using funds to legalize or regulate cannabis sales.

The idea of D.C. statehood is growing in popularity nationwide. A March poll conducted by Data for Progress and the progressive advocacy coalition Democracy for All 2021 Action and shared first with CBS News found that 54% of likely voters think D.C. should be a state. 

Advocates also point to the attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6 as a reason the district should be admitted as a state. Unlike other National Guard units, the D.C. National Guard doesn’t fall under local control, and can only be mobilized by the White House. Lawmakers have questioned why it took so long for the National Guard to act during the assault on the Capitol on January 6. If Washington, D.C., had been given local control of its National Guard, then the Guard might have deployed sooner.

The fight for D.C. statehood is not new — it’s been around since the country’s creation, with both parties spearheading the charge at different times. But the modern fight for statehood is led by Democrats. The District is heavily Democratic — 92% of its residents supported President Biden in the 2020 election. Senate Democrats introduced a companion bill to the House measure in January, which has 38 cosponsors in the Senate, including Schumer.

The partisan balance of the district is, in large part, why admitting D.C. as a state garners so much opposition from Republicans. If admitted as a state, it is highly likely that the two senators and one representative from D.C. would be Democratic, tipping the balance of Congress further into Democrats’ favor.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has been one of the most vocal opponents of D.C. statehood, referring to it in 2019 as “full-bore socialism.” In his speech at the 2020 Republican National Convention, McConnell argued that Democrats wanted to admit D.C., which he called “the swamp itself,” in order to impose their agenda.

“With two more liberal senators, we cannot undo the damage they’ve done,” McConnell said.

House Republicans also oppose admitting D.C. as a state. In a House Oversight Committee hearing on the bill last month, ranking member James Comer said “D.C. statehood is a key part of the radical leftist agenda to reshape America.”

The bill is not expected to win any Republican votes in the House. The House Oversight Committee advanced the bill last week with a vote of 25 to 19, entirely along party lines.

Some Republicans have suggested retroceding the district into Maryland as a compromise, which would theoretically provide district residents with a voting representative in the House, but would not add two new senators. Senator Mitt Romney expressed support for this proposal Tuesday.

But this solution is unpopular with residents of the District and of Maryland. In a statement on retrocession in February, Norton noted that 86% of D.C. residents voted for statehood in a 2016 referendum.

“Retrocession would be inconsistent with that referendum vote and the District’s pursuit of self-determination,” Norton said. The referendum petition was sent to Congress, which took no action on it.

Retrocession is also opposed by Maryland’s congressional representatives.

“The people of D.C. have made it very clear they want self-determination. This is supposed to be a democracy,” Maryland Senator Chris Van Hollen told reporters on Wednesday.

Statehood advocates argue that the partisan balance of the district shouldn’t be a factor in the decision. They believe that every American should care that 700,000 of their fellow citizens do not have voting representation in Congress, and should want statehood for the sake of equal rights.

“We’re not talking about giving rights to people simply because of what their descriptive characteristics may be, we’re saying they deserve these rights because they too are American,” Perry said.

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