A Democratic-backed effort to grant statehood to the District of Columbia faces an uphill battle in Congress, even with record support and powerful allies like Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.).
The Oversight Committee held the first House hearing on D.C. statehood in more than two decades this past week, illustrating how support for making the District the 51st state has gained widespread support within the Democratic caucus.
It’s a marked shift from 1993, when the House last considered similar legislation from the District’s non-voting representative, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D). At the time, the Democrat-controlled House roundly rejected her statehood bill 153-277.
Norton announced a day after Thursday’s hearing that her bill had secured 218 voting cosponsors, the minimum number of votes needed to pass legislation on the House floor. Three other non-voting representatives of the Virgin Islands, Northern Mariana Islands and Guam have cosponsored the legislation but are not permitted to cast floor votes.
The record number of cosponsors for Norton’s statehood legislation includes support from lawmakers representing the D.C. suburbs in Virginia and Maryland as well as liberals, centrists and key committee chairmen.
“The strength of our D.C. statehood bill is reinforced by our cosponsors from Trump districts, who helped Democrats achieve the House majority in the first place,” Norton said in a statement.
But it’s unlikely to go anywhere in the GOP-controlled Senate, if it even gets that far.
Despite the momentum behind Norton’s statehood legislation, House Democratic leaders haven’t committed to a timeline for a floor vote. Thursday’s hearing was viewed as a first step, with Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings’s office (D-Md.) saying the panel planned to vote on the bill “in the coming months.”
A spokeswoman for Hoyer said he “looks forward to bringing Congresswoman Norton’s bill to the House floor.”
Hoyer was the last of the D.C. area Democrats to endorse statehood. In May, he wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post announcing his support for Norton’s bill. Before that, he had previously backed efforts to grant D.C. residents voting rights but without establishing statehood.
Pelosi has long been a supporter of D.C. statehood and voted in favor of Norton’s bill in 1993. Hoyer, meanwhile, voted against it, along with all but one of the House members from the Virginia and Maryland suburbs.
But Hoyer made a point of appearing at Thursday’s hearing, even though he is not a member of the Oversight Committee.
“I view this as one of the most important civil rights and voting rights issues of our day,” he said. “We in Congress need to fix it.”
The House has already passed legislation this year endorsing the idea of D.C. statehood, even though it wouldn’t formally establish the District as a state.
House Democrats’ sweeping voting rights and anti-corruption bill, known as H.R. 1, includes a provision stating that “District of Columbia residents deserve full congressional voting rights and self-government, which only statehood can provide.” The legislation passed along party lines in March, with every Democrat voting in favor.
Norton’s bill would go further by allowing most of D.C. to become a state known as Washington, Douglass Commonwealth, with two senators and at least one House member.
It would maintain the District as the seat of the federal government, but limited to the areas where the Capitol, White House, Supreme Court and other federal buildings adjacent to the National Mall are located.
When Norton’s bill failed in 1993, 151 Democrats voted for it while 105 voted against it. Democrats at the time were reluctant to cede federal jurisdiction over the District. Only one Republican, then-Rep. Wayne Gilchrest of Maryland, voted for the measure.
Since then, previous opposition from lawmakers representing D.C.-area suburbs has largely faded, along with concerns that statehood would lead to a commuter tax on their constituents.
Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), a member of the House Oversight Committee who represents part of the Washington suburbs, said many D.C. residents now commute into Northern Virginia, home to corporate and federal government office buildings. That, he said, means that Virginia could establish a commuter tax if the District were to make such a move.
“I think commuting patterns and where jobs are being created have changed radically since 1993,” Connolly said. “D.C. understands that it can work two ways.”
Connolly said the support for Norton’s bill is largely due to Democrats now viewing statehood as a civil rights issue, particularly amid GOP-led efforts across the country to restrict voting in ways that frequently affect minority communities.
“I think for a lot of us, we see this as a matter of civil rights,” Connolly said, noting that the District’s residents “half of whom are African Americans, are being denied the right to vote.”
“There is no justification for that,” he added.
About 46 percent of the District’s 702,000 residents are African American, according to Census Bureau estimates. The city has more residents than two states: Vermont and Wyoming.
Republicans deny the allegation that their opposition to D.C. statehood is tied in any way to race. Senate Republicans are staunchly opposed to the statehood push in large part because the District would presumably elect two Democratic senators.
“They plan to make the District of Columbia a state — that would give them two new Democratic senators — and Puerto Rico a state, that would give them two more new Democratic senators,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said in a Fox News interview in June while blasting House Democrats’ overall agenda.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) called it “just another power grab” that would “dilute the vote of every real state in the U.S. Senate.”
Republicans also point to the District’s long history of political scandal and corruption in questioning whether it could function effectively as a state.
“We cannot ignore the elephant in the room,” Rep. Jim Jordan (Ohio), the top Republican on the Oversight Committee, said at Thursday’s hearing as he brought up recent self-dealing allegations against D.C. Councilmember Jack Evans (D).
“The District government currently faces serious allegations of misconduct,” he said.
But even if House Democrats pass the statehood legislation and Senate Republicans ignore it, Connolly said it will be a significant achievement.
“We will pass a milestone,” he said.