Heated D.C. Statehood Hearing Illuminates Its Rocky Path Forward

  • House panel kicks off renewed effort to get 51st state
  • Supporters optimistic but Senate remains roadblock

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Top lawmakers on the House oversight panel clashed Monday during a hearing on a bill that would make Washington, D.C., the 51st state.

The heated exchange illustrated the difficult path ahead for Democrats who, with control of the White House and Congress, see this as the legislation’s best ever chance to become law. Throughout the hearing, Republicans insisted that the district isn’t a state because states have landfills, mines, and airports.

The top Democrat and Republican on the committee disputed the other’s motives, with the political ramifications of the change at the center of the debate.

Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.), the ranking member on the committee, said Democrats see D.C. statehood as “a key part of the radical leftist agenda to reshape America.”

Chair Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) said the move toward statehood is about voting rights, not political gain, though it would surely give Democrats two more senators and a House member. Republicans, she said, “try to frame that the support for the push for D.C. statehood as a power grab from the Democrats.”

“I would say the real power grab is denying 712,000 taxpaying American citizens the right to vote,” she said.

Photo by Carlos Barria/Reuters/Bloomberg
Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.) speaks during a House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing on Monday.

At another point, Washington’s longtime delegate in Congress, Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) interrupted Rep. Glenn Grothman‘s (R-Wis.) questioning of Mayor Muriel Bowser to criticize Republicans for not allowing witnesses adequate time to respond.

Comer began to refute Norton — the two raising their voices to reach across the socially distanced hearing room — until Maloney gaveled for order.

Long Road

Norton has pushed for statehood for decades, introducing her first bill to make Washington a state in 1992.

It wasn’t until June 2020 when the House passed the measure for the first time, on a party-line vote. Democrats are now making a second attempt to move a bill (H.R. 51) – an effort that began Monday with the Oversight and Reform Committee hearing.

“With Democrats controlling the House, the Senate and the White House, we have never been closer to statehood,” Norton said.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said Monday he will bring the legislation to the floor in the near future. The bill still needs to be marked up and approved by the committee.

Partisan Split

The bill is unlikely to find success in the Senate without some changes to the filibuster. Of the House bill’s 215 cosponsors, none are Republicans. A similar bill in the Senate, sponsored by Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), also lacks any GOP representation among the 41 cosponsors. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has signed on to it.

GOP lawmakers oppose the bill, in part because Democrats would gain power in Congress. President Joe Biden won Washington’s 3 electoral votes with 92% of the vote. More than 76% of the district’s voters are registered Democrats as of January 2021, compared to 5% Republicans, according to data from the city.

There was some bipartisanship around the issue in 2009 when the Senate passed legislation giving D.C. one representative with voting powers. It would have also added a seat in heavily Republican Utah and raised the number of lawmakers in the House to 437. At the time, 61 Senators voted in support, but the bill was never taken up in the House.

Photo by Carlos Barria/Reuters/Bloomberg
Muriel Bowser, mayor of the District of Columbia, listens during the hearing Monday.

Role of Riots

Statehood supporters invoked the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection several times during the hearing, blaming the delay in getting the National Guard troops to the Capitol because local officials lacked the authority to call the guard.

Wade Henderson, CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said the Trump administration on Jan. 6 “dragged its heels for hours, again over the objections of our mayor.” He also noted the Trump administration ordered the National Guard to Washington over Bowser’s objections in response to Black Lives Matter protests and rioters.

“We simply cannot be the democracy we say we are when the lives of more than 700,000 people are at the mercy of political whim,” he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Emily Wilkins in Washington at ewilkins@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Kyle Trygstad at ktrygstad@bgov.com; Bennett Roth at broth@bgov.com

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