WASHINGTON – The Democratic-led House of Representatives passed a bill Friday that would make Washington, D.C., the 51st state, though Republicans and the White House have voiced their opposition to the measure.
The bill, aptly named “H.R. 51,” passed on a mostly party-line vote of 232-180. One Democrat, Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota, voted against it.
The bill, which now heads to the Republican-majority Senate, would allow for the admission of a new state, called Washington, Douglass Commonwealth, which would be represented by two senators and one member of Congress. The new state would be named for abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who spent the last 17 years of his life in the district.
The state’s territory would include all of the district’s current territory, except for monuments and federal buildings such as the White House and Capitol building.
Friday’s vote marks the first time a Washington statehood bill has passed in either chamber of Congress. A statehood bill came up for a vote in 1993, but failed in the House.
Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser hailed the bill’s passage on Twitter, “I was born without representation, but I swear – I will not die without representation. Together, we will achieve DC statehood, and when we do, we will look back on this day and remember all who stood with us on the right side of history.”
Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, hailed the vote as a “watershed moment” in ending what she called the “second-class citizenship of D.C. residents” and granting them the right to vote.
The bill is unlikely to advance further, however. It now moves to the Senate, where Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has voiced opposition to the measure. No Republicans voted for the bill.
But the district’s sole nonvoting member of Congress, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, struck an optimistic tone after the vote, calling the bill’s passage a “strong boost” and a “head start.”
Democrats spoke in support of the measure in a debate on the House floor before its passage. Some Democratic members, including those in leadership, wore face masks emblazoned with a D.C. map and the numbers “51” in red to symbolize the 51st state.
In a speech on the House floor, Norton said Congress had a “moral obligation” to pass statehood, and had the Constitutional authority to do it.
“The district pays more federal taxes per capita than any state,” she said, but it did not have any representation in Congress. Its status as a district, she noted, also meant that the district received fewer coronavirus response funds despite being impacted by the pandemic.
Norton called it a “personal” issue for her, a descendant of slaves, whose great-grandfather had escaped from a plantation in Virginia to Washington, D.C.
“For three generations my family has been denied the rights other Americans take for granted,” she said.
Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., argued that it was a “grave injustice” that residents of the district did not have full representation despite mass African-American migration to the district in the mid-20th century in pursuit of economic opportunity that they could not otherwise obtain in the segregated South.
Republicans pushed back, calling statehood an attempt for Democrats to accumulate more power and said the country’s founders did not intend for the district to become a state.
Rep. Jody Hice, R-Ga., said what the push for statehood was “really all about” was getting “two more Democratic senators,” adding that the Constitution specifically set aside land for the capital that was not a state.
Calls for D.C. statehood have grown louder since protests erupted across the city in the wake of George Floyd’s death. Bowser, the city’s mayor has advocated for statehood as a way to exert the district’s control over its own policing matters.
At a Thursday press conference, she noted the president “moved the Army to address a local policing matter” and “the only way to address that is through statehood.”
Washington, D.C. leaders had heavily criticized the use of soldiers to respond to protests in the city. National Guard soldiers were activated to respond to the protests in Washington, D.C., and active-duty soldiers were mobilized outside the district but never deployed.
President Donald Trump said in a May interview with the New York Post it would be “very, very stupid” for Republicans to allow Washington to become a state, and his administration has said Trump would veto it.
“They plan to make the District of Columbia a state—that’d give them two new Democratic senators—Puerto Rico a state, that would give them two more new Democratic senators,” McConnell said in an interview with Fox News’ Laura Ingraham last year. “So this is full bore socialism on the march in the House. And yeah, as long as I’m the majority leader of the Senate, none of that stuff is going anywhere.”
What’s the argument for statehood?
Advocates of statehood say it’s a long-overdue change for a city that lacks any voting representation in Congress.
NAACP President Derrick Johnson told USA TODAY in a phone interview it was an issue of “fairness” for the city’s population.
“This has been a question that’s been pushed for over 50 years,” he said, even when the district was a majority-Black city. “This goes beyond just race. This goes to the fundamental issue of fair representation for all citizens of the United States.”
Census Bureau data shows that 46.4% of the district’s population is African American, 11.3% is Hispanic or Latino and 4.4% is Asian, and the district’s population is larger than Wyoming and Vermont.
In a Friday press conference, Pelosi touted Friday’s vote as a move “long overdue” that would offer “justice” to the people living in D.C., allowing them equality to Americans across the country.
“The fact is, people in the District of Columbia pay taxes, fight our wars, risk their lives for our democracy. And yet, in this state, in this place, they have no vote in the House or the Senate, about whether we go to war and how those taxes are exacted,” Pelosi said.
In a speech on the House floor, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said the citizens in the nation’s capital, which he noted was “historically one of our largest African American cities” had been “disenfranchised and shortchanged for too long.”
President Barack Obama said in 2014 that he supported D.C. statehood, putting the district’s “Taxation Without Representation” license plates on the presidential limousine.
There is support for statehood outside the district, too. National Democratic leaders voiced their support for D.C. statehood in a Twitter thread Thursday, with former Vice President Joe Biden, former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Kamala Harris, and others tweeting “DC should be a state. Pass it on.”
What’s the argument against statehood?
Republicans say giving the district statehood would give too much power to the capital and would cause constitutional issues.
The Trump administration’s announcement of its planned veto for the bill called statehood “unconstitutional” because of the logistical problems in carving out land for the state and allotting it congressional representation.
The new state would “achieve outsized authority in some respects as compared to the other 50 States,” they wrote.
Trump has also objected to the prospect of D.C. statehood because it would likely mean the District would elect Democratic members of Congress. The district’s voters chose Hillary Clinton by an overwhelming margin in 2016, and Norton, the District’s Democratic member of Congress, has served since 1991.
“D.C. will never be a state,” Trump told the New York Post. “You mean District of Columbia, a state? Why? So we can have two more Democratic — Democrat senators and five more congressmen? No thank you. That’ll never happen.”
The Senate currently is split 53-47, the majority held by Republicans, and adding two D.C. senators would cut into the GOP advantage in the chamber.
The Constitution gives Congress the ability to set its own conditions for admitting a state, but is vague on the subject of Washington.
Under the Admission Clause, “New States may be admitted by the Congress into this Union,” and Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution allows Congress to create a “District (not exceeding ten miles square)” to become the seat of government.
Initially, Congress was given complete control over the district’s legislation out of fears that a single state could wield too much power over the federal government. Later acts of Congress granted greater self-rule to the district, and the 23rd Amendment gave residents the ability to vote in presidential contests.
Contributing: Christal Hayes