The House on Thursday passed a bill that would make Washington, D.C., the nation’s 51st state, a prospect that advocates call a long-overdue equal-rights milestone and critics decry as a naked power grab.
The bill passed in a 216-208 vote along party lines.
The proposal, backed by President Joe Biden and leaders in both chambers of Congress, was all but guaranteed to pass through the Democrat-led House. But it nevertheless faces daunting odds in the Senate, so long as the legislative filibuster remains in place.
The final vote came after more than 90 minutes of strident debate on the House floor, in which Democrats argued that granting full federal representation to Washington residents is a moral imperative.
By passing the bill, “the House will finally address this unjust, unequal and undemocratic situation,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in the chamber.
Arizona Republican Rep. Andy Biggs responded that the legislation is really about “Democratic partisanship, Democrat power, Democrat policy, Democrat progressive issues.”
Members of each party accused the other of pursuing a “power grab.”
“It is outrageous that Republicans would play partisan politics just to block 712,000 Americans from having full equality in our democracy,” said House Oversight Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y.
The proceedings were briefly derailed when Rep. Mondaire Jones, D-N.Y., accused House Republicans of pushing “racist trash” in the statehood debate.
“One Senate Republican said that D.C. wouldn’t be a quote, well-rounded working class state,” said Jones. “I had no idea there were so many syllables in the word white.”
The comments immediately spurred howls of protest on the chamber floor. Jones agreed to withdraw his language from the record.
Thursday’s bill would create a new state with two senators and one representative.
Once considered a fringe cause pushed by area locals, the vast majority of Democratic lawmakers are now on the record in support of statehood for the nation’s capital.
“This taxation without representation and denial of self-governance is an affront to the democratic values on which our Nation was founded,” Biden’s Office of Management and Budget said Tuesday in an official statement of administration policy.
Advocates for statehood also frame the issue in terms of racial justice and civil rights. Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser, for instance, argued in a House hearing last month that the city’s historically large Black population factored into the denial of voting rights for its residents.
“We know well the grave injustices our nation was built on,” Bowser said in a statement Thursday after the vote passed. “We also know that progress has been made time and time again because elected leaders and everyday citizens had the courage and vision to demand a more inclusive democracy.”
The bill, sponsored by Washington Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, boasts 216 co-sponsors, all of whom are Democrats. The new state would encompass all of the District of Columbia, except for the strip of land on which the White House, the Capital building, the Supreme Court and the national mall are located.
A prior version, H.R. 51, passed through the House in last year’s Congress, marking the first time that either chamber had approved a bid for D.C. statehood. But that legislation stalled in the Senate, led at the time by Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who refused to bring it to a vote.
In the wake of the 2020 election, Democrats gained a razor-thin majority in the Senate. The body is now split 50-50 between the two parties, with Vice President Kamala Harris wielding the tie-breaking vote.
But the filibuster, which requires 60 votes to pass most legislation, would likely thwart any attempt to pass the statehood bill in the Senate by a simple majority. Additionally, a handful of moderate Democratic senators, including Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema, have yet to signal how they would vote.
The bill is also highly unlikely to find support from Republicans, who accuse Democrats of trying to ensconce themselves in power through brute force.
Washington is one of the most liberal cities in the nation. If it became a state, Washington would add two reliably Democratic seats to the Senate, making it exponentially harder for the GOP to win back majority control.
With the face of the U.S. political map on the table, critics balk at Democrats’ insistence that their motivations are of principle and not politics.
“San Francisco will never vote Republican but will do so before D.C. does,” conservative columnist George Will said in The Washington Post on Wednesday. “Does anyone believe that if D.C. were as incorrigibly Republican as it is Democratic, Democrats would favor D.C. statehood, which would mean two more Republican senators until the last trumpet shall sound?”
Many Republican lawmakers have voiced their opposition more bluntly.
Statehood “is nothing more than an unconstitutional power grab by Democrats to gain two ultra-progressive D.C Senate seats [and] enforce radical, far-left policies on the American people,” Rep. Guy Reschenthaler, R-Pa., said on the House floor.
Others have asserted that Washington’s small size and arguable lack of diverse industry disqualify it from statehood. Rep. Jody Hice, R-Ga., argued at last month’s hearing on the bill that D.C. “would be the only state, the only state, without an airport, without a car dealership, without a capital city, without a landfill.”
Democrats and fact-checkers pointed out the district does have car dealerships.
No Republican senators have indicated they would support making the district a state. Some opponents, however, have proposed an alternative in the form of retrocession, which would have the neighboring state of Maryland absorb most of Washington.
Democrats oppose that idea. Norton said in February that retrocession “would be inconsistent” with Washington’s “pursuit of self-determination.”
“D.C. statehood does not require a constitutional amendment,” Norton added, responding to another complaint about the statehood bill. “Under the Constitution, Congress has the authority to admit new states, and every new state has been admitted by Congress.”
With Republicans dead set on retaking Congress in 2022 and with the filibuster likely standing in the way of huge chunks of the Democratic agenda, a growing chorus within the party is calling for the 60-vote rule to be abolished or reformed.
“There are no provisions in the Constitution about a filibuster,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said in an interview published Wednesday in the Washingtonian about the statehood bill.
“So, frankly, I think that filibuster rule ought to be eliminated in the United States so that democracy can prevail,” Hoyer said.
But Manchin has vowed to oppose any efforts to scrap or weaken the filibuster, setting back Democrats’ hopes to pass huge agenda items through Congress without Republican votes.