The House of Representatives on Thursday approved legislation that would make Washington, D.C., the country’s 51st state, a move that would grant residents of the nation’s capital full voting rights and representation in Congress.
The bill, H.R. 51, passed along party lines. The vote will bring D.C. closer to statehood than it has been in at least three decades.
“We right a historic injustice by passing legislation to finally grant the District of Columbia statehood,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said from the House floor.
This is the second time in two years that the House voted to make D.C. a state. But in 2020, Republican control of the Senate and White House prevented final passage. Democrats now control the Senate, and President Joe Biden’s administration announced its official support of the legislation earlier this week, throwing the weight of the White House behind the effort in a way no president has before.
“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,” the administration said in an official statement of its policy position. “This taxation without representation and denial of self-governance is an affront to the democratic values on which our Nation was founded.”
The effort now moves to the Senate, where it faces longer odds of approval. Forty-five Democratic senators have signed on to the chamber’s version of the bill; New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, one of five Democrats yet to do so, has co-sponsored similar legislation in the past. The others — centrist Sens. Joe Manchin (W.Va.), Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.), Mark Kelly (Ariz.) and Angus King (I-Maine) — have not taken public positions on the issue.
The filibuster, a procedural hurdle that requires 60 votes to clear, could derail the statehood push even if it garners support from all 50 Democrats. But Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), D.C.’s non-voting congressional representative, told HuffPost on Thursday that she believed the statehood bill would pass — either because Democrats ultimately choose to do away with the filibuster entirely, or because they alter Senate rules to allow statehood bills to be approved by a bare majority.
“I think we’re well on our way to statehood. The filibuster is on its last legs in the Senate,” she said.
Republicans broadly oppose D.C. statehood, primarily because it would almost certainly assure the election of two additional Democrats to the Senate, potentially tipping the political balance of a body that is currently evenly split between the two parties. As former president Donald Trump said before House passage of the 2020 statehood bill: “District of Columbia, a state? Why? So we can have two more Democratic ― Democrat senators and five more congressmen? No thank you. That’ll never happen.” (D.C. would have one member of the House if it were admitted as a state, not five.)
Congressional Republicans, seeking to avoid such a naked partisan argument, have struggled to come up with coherent arguments against statehood: During House hearings on the legislation, Republican lawmakers instead justified their opposition on grounds that D.C. doesn’t have an airport, landfills, car dealerships, operating mines or a large-scale manufacturing industry. (Washington does, in fact, have a landfill, car dealerships and manufacturing. Three major airports serve the D.C. metropolitan area.)
“Sadly, D.C. statehood has taken a rather dark turn,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said on Thursday. “Some of my colleagues on the other side, rather than fashion any argument on the merits, have taken to denigrating the basic worth of residents of the District of Columbia. One member of the minority party [said] lawmakers should, quote, ‘Go out where the real people are across the country.’”
These arguments represent “bigotry, bigotry, bigotry,” Schumer said.
Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, one of the few Republicans that advocates hoped might back the effort, this week told reporters that he instead favored making D.C. part of Maryland, an increasingly popular idea among Republicans and conservatives that political leaders in Washington and Maryland both oppose.
Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, another Republican target for statehood advocates, has not yet taken a stance on the legislation. In 2009, Murkowski proposed a constitutional amendment to give D.C. voting representation in Congress without making it a state.
This is a fundamental voting and civil rights issue. Rep. Carolyn Maloney
For the last two years, statehood advocates have waged campaigns outside the nation’s capital, running television advertisements and holding rallies in key swing states during the 2020 presidential campaign in an attempt to bolster the movement. During last year’s Democratic presidential primaries, the statehood effort won support from nearly every major candidate in the race. Activists have tried to replicate that strategy to persuade undecided senators, including Sinema and Kelly, to support the cause this year.
The bill admits D.C. as a state while carving out a two-square-mile area stretching from the White House to the Capitol to remain the constitutionally mandated Federal District.
For decades, advocates have argued that D.C.’s lack of statehood and the congressional representation that comes with it has disenfranchised the city’s residents. That dynamic has had a disproportionate impact on Black people, who have historically made up a majority of D.C.’s population. (Currently, 46% of D.C. residents are Black.)
“This is a fundamental voting and civil rights issue,” Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) said.
Trump’s use of federal law enforcement and the National Guard to crack down on Black Lives Matter protests and the right-wing insurrection at the Capitol in January infused new energy into the statehood movement. The campaigns for statehood have also tied their effort to broader Democratic voting rights fights, especially as Republican state legislatures have pursued a wave of new voting restrictions nationwide. Advocates have pushed Senate Democrats to attach statehood to their broader voting rights and election reform bill, and also linked it to calls to abolish the filibuster.
“We cannot allow D.C. statehood to become the next bill in a long line of civil rights legislation killed by the filibuster,” 51 for 51 campaign manager Stasha Rhodes said in a statement Thursday.
Arthur Delaney contributed reporting.