DC Statehood Approved in House, but Prospects Still Bleak

Without Democrats unifying in the Senate, the nation’s capital stands little chance of becoming the 51st state.

Del. Eleanor Holmes-Norton, D-D.C., center, joined from left by Sen.Tom Carper, D-Del., and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., speaks at a news conference ahead of the House vote on H.R. 51- the Washington, D.C. Admission Act, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, April 21, 2021. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

WASHINGTON (CN) — The House voted 216-208 to grant statehood to Washington, D.C., setting the stage for a grueling battle in the Senate to secure passage.

H.R. 51, aptly titled since it seeks to create the 51st state, would turn the District of Columbia into the formally named state of Washington, Douglass Commonwealth, an honorary bestowed upon abolitionist and onetime district resident Frederick Douglass who advocated for D.C. statehood over a century ago. 

This is the second time the House has passed a bill to make D.C. a state. Last year, it was approved 232-180 but failed to muster consideration in the Senate. Then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, was vehemently opposed and refused to take it to a vote.

Most Republicans remain opposed to the measure today, arguing statehood is little more than a bald power grab for Democrats and progressives. Washington, D.C.’s addition to the union would create two new Senate seats in Congress that would likely go to Democrats, giving them a slightly cleaner hold of the powerful legislative body.

The U.S. Senate, now led by Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, has 50 seats controlled by Democrats and 50 controlled by Republicans, leaving Vice President Kamala Harris to serve as the tiebreaker.

In the House, H.R. 51 needed only a simple majority to pass. In the Senate, however, the bill will need at least 10 Republicans to sign on to overcome any filibuster — a maneuver that allows a single lawmaker or a group of lawmakers, to delay a vote so long as there is debate on the floor.

That would mean statehood would require 60 votes to pass the Senate.

Many Democrats and especially advocates for statehood have called on an end to the filibuster rule because it gives bills a chance to pass with just a simple majority.

But that prospect too — ending filibustering — may prove exceedingly difficult since Democrats have yet to achieve unity on how to proceed. And they would need a majority to do exactly that.

Lead sponsor to H.R. 51, Washington, D.C., Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton said on Wednesday during a press conference ahead of the bill’s passage that she believes the filibuster rule is “on its way out.”

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi have offered similar sentiments.

In the Senate, lawmakers like Joe Manchin, a moderate West Virginia Democrat, have indicated they are on the fence with statehood should it even come to that body.

Democrat Senator Krysten Sinema of Arizona has also indicated she is opposed, casting an early pall on statehood hopes down the line.

The push for Washington, D.C.’s statehood has been long fought with advocates and opponents clashing fiercely over what admission means in theory and practice.

For advocates, the choice is as clear as the district’s license plates that proclaim: “Taxation Without Representation.”

Residents, proponents say, do lack representation. While they have a delegate in Holmes Norton, and she can draft legislation, she cannot cast a vote. There is also no voice for D.C. residents represented on Senate committees, meaning appropriations or judicial appointments for example, including for those inside of the district itself, are decisions made without local input.

With 712,000 residents, Washington, D.C., also has a larger population than two states currently in the union. The district, too, pays more federal taxes per capita than any other state and more federal taxes than 21 states. 

Unsurprisingly, local support is also overwhelming: 86% of D.C. residents voted for statehood during a referendum in 2016. 

National support historically has been more of a mixed bag. In 2019, a Gallup poll found 64% of those surveyed were opposed to bringing D.C. into the national fold.

Last September, in a survey by Data for Progress, the group reported that 43% of voters favored statehood. That marked an increase from their initial national survey in January 2019, which found just 35% supported statehood.

But when Data for Progress tested again this February, they found 54% were in favor.

The fall out of the Covid-19 pandemic, a year of civil rights protests and then the Jan. 6 insurrection, which turned the nation’s capital into a veritable fortress overnight, exposed much of the complicated jurisdictional battles brewing in the district.

Ahead of the insurrection, for one, the D.C. National Guard was requested by Mayor Muriel Bowser for peacekeeping. But because D.C. is not a state, it was the Defense Department that had the final say on whether to send troops at all.

The Capitol building itself is also considered federal jurisdiction, meaning that when rioters stormed it, the 340 D.C. National Guard tapped by Bower before the melee then needed permission from the Pentagon to protect the Capitol grounds.

For opponents, the argument is constitutional. A slew of attorneys general for Republican-leaning states argued in a letter to Congress this month that lawmakers, first, lacked the power to reduce the size of Washington, D.C., a feature they say is obligatory for statehood. Then, the attorneys general contend, there’s the matter of consent from the neighboring state — Maryland — which originally ceded the territory so the district could be formed.

Opponents also point to the 23rd Amendment, saying it raises a conflict over just how many electors the new state could receive.

Electors are meant to be based on congressional representation size, with the Constitution promising at least two to each state.

But if the seat of government — like the White House and Congress — shrinks in size because of statehood admission, questions arise over electors.

“If Congress were to shrink the ‘seat of government’ to a small enclave around the Capitol and the White House, nothing in either Article I or the 23rd Amendment would be offended,” Steve Vladeck, a constitutional lawyer argued in an op-ed published Thursday for MSNBC. “And to smooth out any practical (but not constitutional) concerns, the leading proposal for D.C. statehood would have Congress subsequently take up a proposal to repeal that amendment once it no longer serves a purpose.”

Prospects for passage are tough but that has yet to deter Holmes Norton who has deep roots in the city. The delegate is the great granddaughter of a slave who escaped a Virginia plantation and settled in Washington, D.C.

“Congress has a choice, they can continue to exclude D.C. residents from the Democratic process as Congress votes on federal and D.C. laws and to treat them, in the words of Frederick Douglass, as aliens,” she said Thursday. “Not citizens but subjects.”

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