WASHINGTON — 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 approved Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton’s Washington, D.C. Admission Act 216-208 in a party-line vote, describing it as a bid to restore equal citizenship to the residents of the nation’s capital and rectify a historic injustice.
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 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.”
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 Democratic 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, plurality-Black citizens living in the nation’s capital without any say in the nation’s laws.
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.
H.R. 51 would shrink the federal district to a two-mile-square enclave — including federal buildings such as the Capitol and the White House. The rest of the residential and commercial areas would become the State of Washington, Douglass Commonwealth, to honor abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
Democrats’ unity on the statehood bill — only one member of the House caucus voted against it last year, and there are well over 200 co-sponsors this year — completes an extraordinary evolution since the first statehood vote in 1993, when the majority of Democrats joined Republicans in voting no.
Even 10 years ago, Norton introduced the statehood bill with zero original co-sponsors; Burch remembers walking into the House office building lobbying to find the first few.
With the battle shifting to the Senate, 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 the 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.”
Norton told colleagues before the 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 Thursday morning.
Mayor Muriel E. Bowser, D, 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.”
Republicans have resoundingly rebuffed the civil rights argument, saying Democrats want statehood for D.C. only to help advance a liberal wish list in the Senate, including the Green New Deal and packing the Supreme Court.
On Wednesday, House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., released a memo calling D.C. statehood unconstitutional, questioning the city’s financial health, and seizing on crime statistics and scandals involving former city officials to argue that the District does not deserve statehood.
“Democrats’ partisan push for D.C. statehood is irresponsible and represents exactly what the Founding Fathers sought to guard against when establishing the seat of the federal government,” Scalise wrote.
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 supported.
Others, such as Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), who was born in Alaska during its bid for statehood, have yet to reveal their position. But advocates will be hard-pressed to find Republican allies. 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., chairperson 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-Vt., and Mark Kelly and Kyrsten Sinema, both of Arizona, outstanding.
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 the first Senate statehood bill in 2012, albeit two weeks before he retired.
“When he left the Senate, one of the things we talked about was the D.C. statehood legislation. And he urged me to pick up the baton and continue to run with the legislation,” Carper said, adding that he hopes to bring Lieberman to testify in favor of statehood given that he has been respected on both sides of the aisle.
“He’s a deeply religious person, and the golden rule in every single religion … is treat people the way you want to be treated,” Carper said. “For him, this idea of taxation without representation is just a violation of that admonition.”
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 the Senate will find a way to seize on its thin majority, and President Joe Biden’s support, to pass statehood. But she acknowledged that 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.”