Advocates for making the District of Columbia the 51st state have introduced bills with record numbers of sponsors in Congress, but it still will take a hefty effort to win a final victory on an issue that has dogged the nation’s capital since its founding.
The groundwork has been laid in the House, where Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-District of Columbia, won passage of a statehood bill for the first time last June and has amassed 212 co-sponsors.
The House Oversight and Reform Committee will hold a hearing on District statehood on March 11. Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser will be among the proponents appearing before the panel.
The Senate is where the real fight may be. Sen. Tom Carper, D-Delaware, has a record 39 cosponsors on his bill, but that means that 11 of his Democratic colleagues are not yet on board, not to mention any Republicans. Under current Senate rules, it would take 60 votes to stop an almost certain filibuster from GOP senators.
Carper’s struggle to gain Republican supporters stems from the fact that if the District of Columbia was to gain statehood, it would put two more Democrats in the Senate.
Some of the most vocal Republican opponents in the Senate have been Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
“They see it purely in power terms,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Maryland, told Capital News Service. “They are worried about more Democratic senators being added to the Senate.”
Statehood for the District – and perhaps as well for Puerto Rico – amounted to “full-bore socialism on the march,” McConnell said on Fox News last year.
Carper, who has introduced a statehood bill in every Congress since 2013, along with Norton have been some of the biggest activists for District statehood.
“Despite paying more in federal taxes per capita than citizens of any of the 50 states, D.C. residents have no say in how those taxes are actually spent. This isn’t a Republican or Democratic issue; it’s an American issue,” Carper said in a statement after introducing his bill.
Last June, the House passed a statehood bill for the first time. However, it was never taken up in the Senate due to widespread opposition from Republicans, who then still held the majority.
Norton has argued to those who think the District, with a population of 700,000, is too small that “there are more than half a dozen jurisdictions that have two senators with the same population.”
Norton said her time in the House has been spent working with “one arm behind her back.” She has proposed legislation in the past on a variety of issues to help the District, but ultimately measures failed in the Senate due to a lack of representation and voting power. Statehood would put her and the District of Columbia on a more even playing field, she has said.
With a record 212 cosponsors on her bill and only 218 votes needed to pass in the House, Norton said this is a sure sign of success to come.
“The bill was most important to turn around the notion that Americans think we have the same rights that everyone else has,” Norton told CNS.
Norton has turned to several Democratic senators for help, including Van Hollen, who said it is important to build public support. But he believes abolishing the filibuster rule will be statehood advocates’ best strategy.
Along with Carper and Norton, Van Hollen thinks the statehood movement is gaining momentum.
Van Hollen said the federal government’s indifference to the District’s needs makes statehood that more urgent.
“No other jurisdiction in the country would accept this type of intrusion that the government is doing to the District of Columbia,” Van Hollen said.
The Jan. 6 attack on the United States Capitol showed how the District’s lack of statehood denied Bowser powers that every mayor and governor in the United States possesses.
She did not have the direct authority to call in the National Guard to help U.S. Capitol Police and District Police repel the rioters.
Bowser and other advocates, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, have cited the day’s tragic events as a prime example of why the District should be granted statehood.
“Generations of Washingtonians have been denied the right to participate in our democracy,” Bowser said in a statement.
Bowser has said she hopes to have the District of Columbia statehood bill on President Joe Biden’s desk within his first 100 days in office.