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House Democrats Pass Bill To Make D.C. The 51st State

Statehood activists took part in a rally in support of D.C. statehood near the US. Capitol in March. One month later, the House passed a bill that would make D.C. the nation's 51st state.
Statehood activists took part in a rally in support of D.C. statehood near the US. Capitol in March. One month later, the House passed a bill that would make D.C. the nation's 51st state.

The U.S. House of Representatives has once again voted on a bill to grant statehood to Washington, D.C., and enfranchise more than 712,000 Americans, a cause that enjoys unprecedented support but still faces an uphill battle in the U.S. Senate.

"This country was founded on the principles of no taxation without representation and consent of the governed. But D.C. residents are taxed without representation and cannot consent to the laws under which they as American citizens must live," said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District's nonvoting delegate, on the House floor ahead of the vote.

Her statehood bill, H.R. 51, would reduce the size of the federal district and create a new state with the remaining territory with two U.S. senators and a representative, placing residents on equal footing with voters in other states. Statehood advocates contend the cause is also a fight for racial justice. If admitted, Washington, D.C., would be the first state with a plurality of Black residents.

In Ward 6 at Maine Ave SW in front of The Wharf, Emma P. Ward, left, (Ms. Senior District of Columbia 2011) and Joyce Robinson-Paul show their support for D.C. statehood.
Tyrone Turner / WAMU
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In Ward 6 at Maine Ave SW in front of The Wharf, Emma P. Ward, left, (Ms. Senior District of Columbia 2011) and Joyce Robinson-Paul show their support for D.C. statehood.

"The folks who live in the beacon of democracy that is the nation's capitol don't have a voice," says Ravi Perry, chair of the political science department at Howard University and board member of DC Vote, a statehood advocacy organization.

House Democrats passed Norton's bill last year in a historic vote, but the legislation never reached the GOP-led Senate.

Now, with Democrats controlling the White House and the Senate, the effort to make D.C. the 51st star on the nation's flag has more support than ever before — even though it is unclear whether the measure has the backing of all 50 Democratic senators, let alone 60 votes in all, for it to pass in the Senate.

It passed the House on Thursday 216-208 along party lines.

Ahead of the vote, Republican lawmakers linked D.C. statehood with a laundry list of progressive policies.

"This is not about a balance of power, this is about more power," said Rep. Nancy Mace, R-S.C. "This is about government-run health care, a 93 trillion [dollar] Green New Deal, packing the Supreme Court, higher taxes and a bigger, less efficient form of government."

Jasmine Joyner places signs at Martin Luther King Jr. Ave & Malcolm X Ave SE in Washington, D.C.
Tyrone Turner / WAMU
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Jasmine Joyner places signs at Martin Luther King Jr. Ave & Malcolm X Ave SE in Washington, D.C.

Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., claimed Democrats' push for statehood is a transparent attempt to grow their power in Washington.

"I wonder, listening to the debate, if our friends on the other side of the aisle would be so passionate if Washington, D.C., were 90% Republican as [opposed to] 90% Democrat," he said. "H.R. 51 goes against the Founding Fathers' intent, and is unconstitutional, impractical and a blatant power grab."

But Democrats counter that at its core, the fight for statehood is a fight for equal representation, and frequently cite the fact that D.C. residents pay more in federal taxes than 21 states and more per capita than any state, according to 2019 IRS data.

"[Republicans] don't see taxation without representation. They don't see military service without representation, when tens of thousands of people from the nation's capital have served America in every war that we've ever had," said Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md.

"All that they see is two new liberal Democrat senators, but that cuts against everything that we believe in about American democracy. We do not deny people the right to vote based on our expectation of how they will vote. We don't disenfranchise people because we disagree with who they might elect."

Supporters stand at the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Ave & Malcolm X Ave SE in Ward 8 in Washington, D.C.
Tyrone Turner / WAMU
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Supporters stand at the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Ave & Malcolm X Ave SE in Ward 8 in Washington, D.C.

Path forward

President Biden has repeatedly expressed support for D.C. statehood, and on Tuesday, the White House formally called on Congress to "provide for a swift and orderly transition to statehood for the people of Washington, D.C."

"For far too long, the more than 700,000 people of Washington, D.C., have been deprived of full representation in the U.S. Congress," a statement from the Office of Management and Budget said. "This taxation without representation and denial of self-governance is an affront to the democratic values on which our Nation was founded."

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has promised to bring the measure to the Senate floor for a vote. But 60 votes are needed to overcome the legislative filibuster, and Republicans stand universally opposed to the statehood effort.

Even if the filibuster weren't at play here, it's unclear whether all Senate Democrats are on board with the legislation.

Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, both of whom have said they do not support eliminating the filibuster, are not currently co-sponsors of the Senate statehood bill.

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