The House voted late Wednesday night to place statues of one illustrious deceased person for each of the territories and the District of Columbia in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall, but the bill’s future is uncertain in the Senate.
The House Administration Committee passed legislation in July that would have allowed two statues for the District of Columbia and one statue each for the five territories. But the bill passed by voice vote Wednesday resembled an amendment introduced over the summer by the committee’s ranking member, Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.).
The compromise was meant to appease Lungren and other Republicans who argued that giving the District two statues would be a symbolic nod toward statehood.
“Anytime you’re dealing with D.C., Republicans always want to assume it’s a referendum on D.C. statehood,” a senior Democratic staffer said. “Our political calculations told us that that was our best chance of passing it.”
Democrats are hoping the concession will have the same effect in the Senate. A spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said the office hasn’t received a request to begin the bill clearance process yet.
The House passage marks a bittersweet and symbolic victory for voting rights activists in the District.
“We’d rather go with one statue than no statue,” Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said Wednesday, echoing a common refrain among the city’s advocates. “That’s the kind of compromise we’re willing to make.”
Ilir Zherka, executive director of the advocacy group DC Vote, said Tuesday that if the measure didn’t pass the House, it would indicate the extremity of Republican opposition to District initiatives. Republicans, who have generally not favored voting rights for the District, will hold a majority in the House in the 112th Congress.
“If that vote fails, if you can’t get statues, you can’t get budget autonomy, you can’t get legislative autonomy, you can’t put your own slogan on the D.C. quarter, so what’s possible?” Zherka said. DC Vote has promised to redouble its efforts moving into next year.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer released a statement Wednesday evening supporting the statue bill.
“I believe, in fact, that the District of Columbia deserves two statues, just like any state; but failing that, I believe that some recognition is better than none,” the Maryland Democrat said. “The people of the District of Columbia have made remarkable contributions to America’s history, its culture, and its ongoing work to guarantee equal rights to all — and it’s time that those contributions are recognized here in the heart of our democracy.”
When it seemed feasible that two statues would be placed in the hall, D.C. commissioned the creation of figures of iconic writer and abolitionist Frederick Douglass and architect Pierre L’Enfant, who mapped out the city. The statues have been sitting at One Judiciary Square pending the Congressional go-ahead.
If the Senate passes the bill, the city will face the dilemma of choosing between the likenesses, Norton said.
“This will be difficult because it speaks volumes about who we are in the District, that the two men chosen were not only longtime distinguished District of Columbia residents but also are great Americans apart from their District identity,” she said on the House floor Wednesday. “We have decided it is better to have to decide which one of two great residents of the District of Columbia will represent our city for now than to have no choice at all.”
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