WASHINGTON — The House voted along party lines Thursday to grant statehood to Washington, D.C., as Democrats moved to use their congressional majority to accomplish a long-held goal that has become a central plank in the party’s push to expand voting rights and address racial inequity.
The legislation would establish a 51st state called Washington, Douglass Commonwealth — in honor of Frederick Douglass, the Black emancipation and civil rights leader — while leaving the National Mall, Capitol Hill, the White House and some other federal property under congressional control. The new state would have a single voting representative in the House and two senators representing its more than 700,000 residents, most of whom are people of color.
The House passed the statehood legislation last year over united GOP opposition, but it died in the Senate, where Republicans who controlled the chamber at the time declined to consider it. On Thursday, House Republicans again uniformly opposed the legislation, calling it an unconstitutional power grab by Democrats.
“Congress has both the moral obligation and the constitutional authority to pass HR 51,” said Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District of Columbia’s nonvoting House delegate, using the legislation’s symbolic designation to reflect the new state.
Norton has championed the legislation but could not vote on the bill she wrote.
“This country was founded on the principles of ‘no taxation without representation’ and consent of the governed, but D.C. residents are taxed without representation and cannot consent to the laws under which they, as American citizens, must live,” she said.
The vote in the House was 216-208. The White House confirmed President Joe Biden’s support for the measure this week, with the Office of Management of Budget issuing a statement of administration policy declaring that making the District of Columbia a state would “make our union stronger and more just.”
But even with Democrats now in control of a 50-50 Senate, prospects for the measure remain dim. A few Senate Democrats have not publicly endorsed the proposal, and advancing it would most likely require at least 10 Republicans to vote in support, while none have said they would.
Momentum for statehood has skyrocketed in recent years, as proponents have highlighted how much control the federal government wields over the nation’s capital and how the disenfranchisement of its residents disproportionately affects voters of color.
Backlash over the violent removal of protesters outside the White House during demonstrations against police brutality galvanized the movement. A decision to treat the District of Columbia as a territory when initially distributing state pandemic relief in 2020 also shortchanged the local government more than $700 million, local officials have said.
On Thursday, lawmakers pointed to the deadly Capitol riot Jan. 6, in which Washington’s Metropolitan Police Department helped respond to the chaos, as further evidence of the need for statehood. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser could not swiftly summon the National Guard, as a governor could have, and officials have acknowledged that the delay in sending troops contributed to the devastation at the Capitol.
“Statehood for the District of Columbia is about showing respect for our democracy, for the American people and for our Constitution,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California said on the House floor Thursday. “For more than two centuries, the people in Washington, D.C., have been denied their right to fully participate in our and their democracy.”
Republicans have mounted a fierce campaign against the legislation, insisting it was not about equal representation but ensuring that Democrats would secure three reliable votes — two in the Senate and one in the House — and pad their slim margins in both chambers. During an hour of debate, several Republican lawmakers criticized the bill as an unconstitutional affront to what the country’s founders intended when they established the nation’s capital.
“They never wanted the seat of our government to be a state, and they specifically framed the Constitution to say so,” said Rep. Jody B. Hice, R-Ga. “And yet, what the Democrats really are trying to do, that they will not admit, is gaining even more representation by creating a city-state whereby they get two more senators.”
Other Republicans have pushed for retroceding the nation’s capital into Maryland as a solution to ensure representation, a suggestion that has been repeatedly rejected by both Washingtonians and Marylanders.
“Instead of jumping to full-fledged statehood — which would conveniently add two brand-new Democrats to the U.S. Senate — we should address the underlying issue, which is representation,” Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., said in a statement before the vote.
He said he would be open to giving Norton, or her successor, full voting rights on the House floor.
“Let’s respect the institutions of our democracy and have real conversations about fair congressional representation for the District of Columbia,” he said.
Some proponents of statehood have begun pushing for the bill to be incorporated in sweeping legislation to expand voting rights and overhaul national elections, which Democrats have staked out as a top priority. They have also mapped out plans to pressure the handful of Senate Democrats who have not endorsed the legislation.
“We cannot allow D.C. statehood to become the next bill in a long line of civil rights legislation killed by the filibuster,” said Stasha Rhodes, a campaign director for the pro-statehood coalition 51 for 51. “Equal representation in Congress for more than 700,000 mostly Black and brown Washingtonians is a critical voting rights issue, and it’s no longer enough for Congress to support or talk about democracy reforms while leaving D.C. statehood on the legislative back burner.”
A group of House Democrats gathered for a news conference Thursday to call on their Senate counterparts to abolish the filibuster, as many of their legislative ambitions are doomed to fall short of the 60-vote supermajority threshold needed to advance bills. They are continuing to send legislative priorities to the Senate’s doorstep, in a bid to ramp up pressure on moderate Democrats who remain reluctant to do away with the blocking tactic.