Democrats in U.S. House approve bill to make District of Columbia the 51st state, but Senate opposed

The Democratic-controlled House has approved a bill to make the District of Columbia the 51st U.S. state, saying Congress has both the moral obligation and constitutional authority to ensure that the city's 700,000 residents are allowed full voting rights.

Republicans oppose D.C. statehood, but future Democratic presidency could take it up again

Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton wears a 51st state facemask during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington on Thursday about D.C. statehood. (Carolyn Kaster/The Associated Press)

The Democratic-controlled House approved a bill Friday to make the District of Columbia the 51st U.S. state, saying Congress has both the moral obligation and constitutional authority to ensure that the city's 700,000 residents are allowed full voting rights, no longer subject to "taxation without representation."

Lawmakers approved the bill, 232-180, largely along party lines, marking the first time a chamber of Congress has passed a D.C. statehood bill. The legislation now goes to the Republican-controlled Senate, where it faces insurmountable opposition from Republican leaders.

Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the district's non-voting representative in Congress, sponsored the bill, saying it has both the facts and Constitution on its side.

D.C.'s population is larger than those of Wyoming and Vermont, and the new state would be one of seven with populations under one million, she said. The city's $15.5 billion US annual budget is larger than those of 12 states, and D.C.'s triple-A bond rating is higher than those of 35 states, Norton said.

Opponents, mostly Republicans, called the bill a power grab for the firmly Democratic city, and said the nation's founding fathers intended the capital to be separate from the other states.

"This is about power. Make no mistake about it," said Rep. Chip Roy of Texas. The bill would "fundamentally alter what D.C is," he added.

Republican makes unfavourable comparison

Norton, who has served as D.C. delegate since 1991, said the issue is deeply personal for her and thousands of other city residents who have long been disenfranchised. Her great-grandfather Richard Holmes escaped slavery at a Virginia plantation and "made it as far as D.C., a walk to freedom but not to equal citizenship," she said.

Congress has two choices, said Norton. "It can continue to exercise undemocratic, autocratic authority over the 705,000 American citizens, treating them, in the words of Frederick Douglass, as 'aliens, not citizens, but subjects.' Or Congress can live up to this nation's promise and ideals, end taxation without representation and pass" the statehood bill.

A D.C. licence plate is displayed in Washington on Friday. Supporters of the bid for statehood often focus on the unfairness of residents paying taxes without being part of a state. (Daniel Slim/AFP via Getty Images)

The bill would create a new state of Washington, Douglass Commonwealth, in honour of the Maryland-born Douglass. It also would reduce the size of the federal district to a tourist-friendly area that includes the White House, the Capitol, the Supreme Court, federal monuments and the federal executive, legislative and judicial office buildings adjacent to the National Mall and the Capitol.

Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton blasted the bill ahead of the House vote. In a Senate speech, he dismissed Washington, D.C., as a city with little more to offer than lobbyists and federal workers.

"Yes, Wyoming is smaller than Washington by population, but it has three times as many workers in mining, logging and construction, and 10 times as many workers in manufacturing," Cotton said. "In other words, Wyoming is a well-rounded working-class state."

Cotton also criticized Democrats for prioritizing the D.C. statehood vote while there is "mob violence" in the streets. Recent protests near the White House required "force by federal law enforcement officers under federal control," he said.

Supporters said the bill has become even more important in the aftermath of protests for racial justice in both Washington and across the nation. Democratic leaders scheduled the vote after the Trump administration's much-criticized move June 1 to use federal forces to clear Lafayette Square near the White House of peaceful protesters so that President Donald Trump could trumpet his law and order credentials in a photo op.

"There shouldn't be troops from other states in Washington, D.C.," said Bowser. "There shouldn't be federal forces advancing against Americans, and there very definitely shouldn't be soldiers stationed around our city waiting for the go to attack Americans in a local policing matter."

District changes since last congressional vote

Trump said last month that "D.C. will never be a state" because it would likely mean two more Democratic senators. "No, thank you. That'll never happen," he said.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, from nearby Maryland, said the rights of D.C. residents should transcend political calculations.

U.S. House Majority Leader Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland speaks Thursday during a news conference on the eve of the vote on District of Columbia statehood. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Recent events have focused national attention on the city's plight. Earlier this year, when Congress passed the CARES Act stimulus package, the capital was classified as a territory rather than a state — a distinction that cost Washington more than $700 million in federal funding.

All district laws are subject to review by a congressional committee, which can veto them or alter them by attaching riders to federal appropriations bills. During Republican control of Congress, conservatives have sought, mostly unsuccessfully, to restrict some of the city's liberal initiatives such as needle exchanges for drug users and abortions under its Medicaid program.

In 1993, a D.C. statehood bill was defeated in the Democrat-controlled Congress.

Since the 1993 vote, the population of D.C. has grown by about 100,000 and the rate of violent crime has fallen dramatically. A plurality of residents are Black.

In November 2016, with a turnout of 65 per cent, over 85 per cent of voters chose Yes on a referendum question asking the Council of the District of Columbia to petition Congress to admit it as the 51st state.

With files from The Associated Press


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