U.S. House passes D.C. statehood bill, but votes still lacking in Senate

By: - April 22, 2021 5:11 pm

By Laura Olson

WASHINGTON — For the second time, the U.S. House of Representatives has passed a measure to make the District of Columbia the 51st state, sending the historic bill to the Senate on a party-line vote.

“We look forward to a swift vote in the Senate on this essential legislation,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said ahead of Thursday’s 216-208 vote.

But if the narrowly Democratic-controlled Senate were to speedily bring up the measure, it would be all but guaranteed to fail.

More senators have co-sponsored the statehood bill than ever before. However, five members of the Democratic caucus have not signed on: Sens. Mark Kelly and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona; Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire; Joe Manchin of West Virginia; and Angus King of Maine, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats.

Hesitation from this handful of Democrats, plus the Senate’s 60-vote threshold that would necessitate support from some Republicans, means the proposal is unlikely to reach the president’s desk anytime soon.

A spokeswoman for Shaheen, who previously co-sponsored a statehood bill, said Thursday that the senator supports D.C. statehood “because she believes that every citizen deserves equal representation in Congress.” But she did not provide an explanation on why Shaheen has not cosponsored the current measure.

“I haven’t made a decision on it one way or the other,” Kelly told Capitol Hill reporters this week, according to a pool feed. “I’ll make a decision ultimately based on what’s in the best interest of our country.”

“As of now, I’m undecided,” King told another Capitol Hill reporter. His office did not respond to a message from States Newsroom seeking additional comment on the proposal.

A spokeswoman for Sinema did not respond to requests for comment on the legislation.

While the odds of enactment remain long, Thursday’s House vote comes as at a time when D.C. statehood has blossomed as a mainstream issue for Democrats. When a statehood bill first came up for a House vote in 1993, more than 100 Democrats opposed the idea.

Now, the proposal has passed the House in two consecutive years. Nearly every House Democrat signed on to cosponsor the bill this year.

President Joe Biden has offered his backing as well. The White House issued a formal statement of support, saying that making D.C. a state would “make our union stronger and more just.”

Question of voting rights

This issue has been tied in to a broader focus by national Democrats on voting rights, who argue that it’s fundamentally undemocratic for the 700,000 residents of D.C. to lack a voice in Congress. Not only do residents not have representation in the Senate, Congress can strike down D.C.’s local laws.

The legislation, H.R. 51, which has been put forth each year by D.C.’s non-voting representative, Democrat Eleanor Holmes Norton, would resolve that by splitting the official parts of the nation’s capital from the neighborhoods where its residents live.

The federal district would shrink down to a small complex of federal buildings, such as the Capitol and the White House. The remainder of what’s now D.C. would be split off to become a state, with the same congressional representation as other states.

D.C. would be the first state to be added since 1959, when Alaska and Hawaii joined the U.S.

Republicans have fiercely opposed statehood for D.C., accusing Democrats of supporting statehood for the reliably Democratic city because it would give them two more votes in the Senate.

“If Democrats were serious about statehood, they would pursue it through a constitutional amendment—requiring two-thirds of the House of Representatives and Senate to approve and three-quarters of states to ratify,” said Rep. Jim Hagedorn, R-Minn., in a statement after the vote.

“Instead, H.R. 51 only serves as another vehicle for Speaker Pelosi to consolidate Democrat power and enact their socialist agenda.”

GOP lawmakers have argued that D.C. should instead be absorbed back into Maryland, remedying the push for representation in the Senate.

Others have pointed to the 23rd Amendment, which granted the District three electoral votes, saying it should be repealed to prevent the occupants of the White House — the only residents in the new District — from having their own electoral votes.

Democratic supporters say the 23rd Amendment could be quickly repealed, because Congress and state legislatures would not have any interest in allowing electoral votes solely for the president and their spouse. They oppose retrocession to Maryland, arguing that the residents of the District have made clear their interest in becoming their own state.

Democrats dismiss the argument of partisanship with one of their own: that GOP lawmakers are not concerned about granting equal representation to the residents of D.C. because the largest share of D.C. residents are Black, and they rarely vote for Republicans.

“When some say this is not about race and partisanship, you can be sure it’s about race and partisanship,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., “A city with a minority-majority population that apparently might vote in a different way from some. … How somebody votes cannot be a test of whether they have the right to vote in a democracy.”

After Thursday’s House vote, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., did not give a timeline for the proposal’s fate in that chamber, saying only that supporters would “do everything we can to pass it.”

Should backers find a way to navigate the bill through the obstacles of the Senate, a group of Republican attorneys general have already declared their intention to pursue legal action.

Twenty-two GOP attorneys general — including those from Georgia, Louisiana, Florida, Missouri, Montana, Ohio, Idaho, Kansas and Arizona — made that threat in a letter earlier this month to congressional leaders, arguing that making D.C. a state “would constitute an unprecedented aggrandizement of an elite ruling class with unparalleled power and federal access compared to the remaining fifty states of the union.”

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Laura Olson
Laura Olson

Laura Olson covers the nation's capital as a senior reporter for States Newsroom, a network of nonprofit outlets that includes Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Her areas of coverage include politics and policy, lobbying, elections, and campaign finance.