House set to vote on DC statehood, but all eyes are on the Senate

No one planning a victory parade as GOP condemns bill as ‘power grab’

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., walks through the green room as she leaves the press conference in the Capitol ahead of Thursday's vote in the House on H.R. 51 the Washington, DC Admission Act,  on Wednesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., walks through the green room as she leaves the press conference in the Capitol ahead of Thursday's vote in the House on H.R. 51 the Washington, DC Admission Act, on Wednesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted April 22, 2021 at 5:00am

Thursday is kind of a big day for advocates for making Washington, D.C., a state.

The House will vote on a statehood bill for the second year in a row, and Democrats are once again confident it will pass. Still, no one is planning a victory parade down Pennsylvania Avenue, even though it is lined with 51-star flags.

“We know that we have a much bigger hill to climb in the U.S. Senate,” said Joshua Burch, founder of the grassroots group Neighbors United for DC Statehood.

Last year, the action in the House was historic. This year, the focus has already shifted to the other chamber, as the issue takes the national stage and impatience mounts among groups who’ve been waiting for a long time.

The Senate was the main thing on people’s minds at a rally near Brooklyn’s Prospect Park over the weekend, more than 200 miles from the nation’s capital.

“Chuck, I hope you’re listening,” said activist Christian Cooper, calling on Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer to make the issue a priority.

“Why is this birder guy who’s born in New York, lived his whole life in New York, has no connection to D.C. whatsoever, why is he so gung-ho about D.C. statehood?” asked Cooper, who emerged as a racial justice icon after a white woman called the police on him while he was bird-watching in Central Park.

“This is the single most important civil rights issue today,” Cooper said at the livestreamed event, hosted by the pro-statehood coalition 51 for 51.

Behind him, the Resistance Revival Chorus burst into song. “We want the vote,” they chanted, performing a piece written in 2001 by the all-woman Black a cappella ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock.

Loading the player...

Filibuster woes

The Senate was again top of mind when House Democrats gathered for a Wednesday news conference. As they touted the win they expect on the floor this week, the mood was more resigned than jubilant.

“We need to get rid of the filibuster,” said Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer. The Maryland Democrat said he hadn’t yet spoken with Schumer about scheduling the Senate bill, aptly named S 51.

While that bill has 44 co-sponsors, it would need bipartisan support to overcome the Senate’s 60-vote threshold of the legislative filibuster. Meanwhile, even some Senate Democrats have yet to say whether they would support it.

That includes Mark Kelly, a freshman from Arizona who dodged the issue in the hallways of the Capitol last week.

“I think, in general, people have the right to representation, but a piece of legislation like that is obviously significant, and we’ll take a look at the details,” Kelly said.

Among the other question marks in the Democratic Caucus are Sens. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and Angus King of Maine, none of whom have added their names to the bill.

The measure’s sponsor, Delaware Sen. Thomas R. Carper, said he planned to speak with Homeland Security and Government Affairs Chairman Gary Peters, D-Mich., on Thursday about the timing of a possible committee hearing.

Carper said he was hopeful, noting that the climate has never been more favorable for a D.C. statehood push, with both chambers of Congress and the White House in Democratic hands. 

President Joe Biden’s Office of Management and Budget on Monday released a statement of administration policy expressing support for the bill, calling “taxation without representation” and a denial of self-governance “an affront” to the nation’s values.

“The Administration calls for the Congress to provide for a swift and orderly transition to statehood for the people of Washington, D.C.,” the statement read.

‘Power grab’

The House vote Thursday comes after a rancorous debate that has mostly split along party lines.

Statehood is nothing more than a “power grab” by Democrats seeking to move forward a “radical leftist agenda,” House Oversight and Reform ranking member James Comer, R-Ky., said last month. Republicans see the bill as a way to create two new Democratic Senate seats in an evenly divided Senate, a likelihood considering the District gave Biden 93 percent of the vote in November.

Democrats have sought to frame the push as a civil rights issue in a city where nearly half of residents are Black.

The bill would shrink the federal district to a 2-square-mile area and turn the rest of what is now the District of Columbia into the nation’s third-smallest state by population (ahead of Wyoming and Vermont), dubbed Washington, Douglass Commonwealth. For its 706,000 residents, statehood would mean full congressional representation, with one House member and two senators.

If the bill is enacted, the current mayor would be deemed governor and the city council would become the Legislative Assembly. The bill calls for scheduling the first elections for senators and representative within 30 days of admission to the Union.

It also calls for the repealing of the 23rd Amendment to the Constitution, which granted the District voting rights for presidential elections.

Times have changed, the District’s nonvoting delegate, Democrat Eleanor Holmes Norton, said Wednesday, describing the lonely early days of her statehood quest. When she first started raising the issue decades ago, it wasn’t on the national radar. Back then, many House Democrats — including Hoyer — were not in favor of her bill.

Today, she said, House Democrats have rallied behind her and polls show rising awareness. “And I am predicting that as a result of [Thursday’s] vote and the hearings we have been having that educate the public, that percentage will even go up,” she said.