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With Stronger Democratic Support, D.C. Statehood Fight Returns To Capitol Hill

Residents of the District of Columbia rally for statehood Monday near the U.S. Capitol ahead of a House committee hearing on the effort.
Residents of the District of Columbia rally for statehood Monday near the U.S. Capitol ahead of a House committee hearing on the effort.

Updated March 22, 2021 at 4:24 PM ET

Thirty years after Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton first introduced a bill for Washington, D.C., statehood, she returns to Capitol Hill to do it again — this time with the broadest support for the cause to date.

"We've gotten off of the wish list to an approach of a new reality," Norton, the district's nonvoting delegate, told NPR.

Her legislation, H.R. 51, was the subject of a House Oversight Committee hearing on Monday. It was approved by the Democratic-led House in a historic vote last year but never reached the GOP-controlled Senate. And although Democrats now hold a slim majority in the Senate, the measure faces long odds in the upper chamber.

The bill would reduce the size of the federal district and admit the state of Washington, Douglass Commonwealth — in honor of the abolitionist Frederick Douglass — into the union. Advocates contend the statehood cause is a fight for racial justice as the majority of D.C.'s 700,000 residents are people of color.

During the hearing, the committee's ranking member, Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., said granting D.C. statehood would be unconstitutional.

"D.C. statehood is a key part of the radical leftist agenda to reshape America, along with the Green New Deal, defunding the police and packing the U.S. Supreme Court," he said.

Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser countered that the dispute over the constitutionality of statehood is a "bad faith argument."

"Article I of the Constitution is not an obstacle," she said. "As H.R. 51 makes clear, a 'federal district' will remain for the federal government, its buildings and its workings; and the rest of the area, where people live, will become the 51st state."

"All we're looking for is equality with other Americans, especially since we pay the highest federal taxes per capita in the United States," Norton said, noting the two senators that each state gets, along with House representatives with voting power — something she does not have.

"Even when a matter affects only the District of Columbia, everybody can vote on it except the person who represents the District of Columbia," she said.

A "brick wall" in the Senate

With a record number of co-sponsors, Norton said the bill is "guaranteed passage" in the House. The Senate version of the bill has more than 40 Democratic co-sponsors, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York. President Biden has repeatedly indicated support for D.C. statehood.

New national polling, conducted by Data for Progress and the progressive coalition Democracy for All 2021 Action, shows a record high level of support, with 54% of likely voters supporting D.C. statehood.

But without Republican backing, the main obstacle to statehood lies in the Senate, and specifically the chamber's legislative filibuster.

"Right now the Senate has a big brick wall in front of it called the filibuster that House bills are passing and slamming right into," said Eli Zupnick, spokesman for Fix Our Senate, a campaign focused on eliminating the filibuster. "Unless that brick wall is dismantled, then there's no chance of progress on any of these bills at all."

With the filibuster, there's a 60-senator threshold to advance a bill, which means Democrats don't have the numbers to pass most legislation without GOP support.

Most Democrats claim the filibuster has become a tool of obstruction, one that prevents them from enacting the agenda they campaigned on and that the American people expect them to deliver on.

"Eliminating the filibuster is the key to unlocking the door to any progress at all. It doesn't mean you're guaranteed to make progress; you still need to find 50 votes for the issues that you want to get done," Zupnick said. "But if the filibuster exists, there's no chance at all."

But others argue the filibuster protects the minority party.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., penned an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal last week warning Democrats to be careful what they wish for, should Republicans retake control of the Senate.

"As soon as Republicans wound up back in control, we wouldn't stop at erasing every liberal change that hurt the country," McConnell wrote. "We'd strengthen America with all kinds of conservative policies with zero input from the other side."

Although some Democrats remain opposed to ending the filibuster, there may be movement to reform how it's used.

Advocates for eliminating the filibuster point to its history in being used to obstruct civil rights.

"The filibuster is a tool that was forged by segregationists in order to block civil rights bills, maintain Jim Crow and maintain white supremacy. It blocked over 200 anti-lynching bills over the years," Zupnick said.

Norton said she believes the American public is connecting the dots between getting legislation passed and eliminating the filibuster.

"The filibuster is on its last legs," she predicted.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, seen here during a statehood news conference in June, argues that eliminating the filibuster will pave the way to the District of Columbia becoming the nation's 51st state.
Alex Wong / Getty Images
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Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, seen here during a statehood news conference in June, argues that eliminating the filibuster will pave the way to the District of Columbia becoming the nation's 51st state.

"Power grab" by Democrats

Republican messaging on D.C. statehood has a common theme: Democrats are making a blatant "power grab" to alter the makeup of the Senate by adding two senators from an overwhelmingly liberal electorate.

A day before the House officially backed statehood in June, Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., took to the Senate floor to express his outrage.

"What vital industries would the new state of Washington represent? Lobbying? Bureaucracy?" he asked. "Give me a break. By far, the largest group of workers in the city are bureaucrats and other white-collar professionals."

Cotton said yes, Wyoming has a smaller population than D.C., but Wyoming is a "well-rounded, working-class state."

It was a barb that stung many residents in the district, including business owner Dionna Dorsey Calloway.

"You can't see me, but I'm having an emotional reaction. My eyes are watering," she said as she recalled his remarks. "You probably hear my voice quivering a bit because — I just, it's disgusting. It's erasure of an entire population of people here in Washington."

"You are trying to deny 700,000 people access to voting representation and the ability to make and cast votes that will help themselves. That is just despicable to me."

"A stain on American democracy"

Stasha Rhodes — the campaign manager of 51 for 51, a national D.C. statehood campaign — remembers Cotton's comments and a more recent dig at the district from Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska.

"The center of America is not Washington, D.C.," Sasse said in January. "The center of America is the neighborhoods where 330 million Americans are raising their kids and trying to put food on the table and trying to love their neighbor."

Rhodes said, "When teachers and librarians and doctors and nurses and Postal Service workers hear Republicans say things like [that], it is absolutely hurtful."

She said as upsetting as she found Cotton's and Sasse's comments, 51 for 51 is using them strategically.

"It's our responsibility as an advocacy campaign to sort of shine a light on the inequities, the gaps in Congress, and to uplift the comments of Republicans who have proven that they don't care about democracy and that they're OK with locking 700,000 Americans out of democracy," she said.

Using the hashtag #WeAreDC, the group shares stories of D.C. residents from all walks of life to myth-bust the view that D.C. is only a political machine.

"Many Americans think about Washington, D.C., as the Capitol or White House or the National Mall, but they don't often think about the 700,000 Washingtonians who don't have access to the democracy that surrounds them," Rhodes said.

The lack of voting power in Congress for D.C. residents has led some to maintain their voter registration elsewhere to have more of a say in the democratic process.

Rhodes says that last year was peppered with events showcasing the need for statehood: the district initially getting shortchanged on pandemic relief; former President Donald Trump engaging the National Guard on D.C. residents during peaceful protests; and the violent takeover of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

But Rhodes is quick to note that while those events draw national attention, the core of the fight for statehood is about representation.

"From our perspective, leaving 700,000 mostly Black and brown residents without a vote in Congress is racism," she added. "D.C. residents pay federal taxes and serve in the military but have no vote in Congress. This is an injustice and honestly, a stain on American democracy."

Want to know more about the District of Columbia's history and how its self-governance changed over time? NPR member station WAMU has you covered.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.