With House in Tow, D.C. Statehood Backers Mull Senate Strategy

With the historic passage of a bill granting the District state-level sovereignty despite Republican opposition, statehood advocates are planning a Senate strategy for the remaining months of this congressional session and the next, regardless of the results of the November general election.

On Friday, June 26, the House passed the Washington, D.C. Admission Act of 2019 on a 232-180 vote becoming the first chamber of Congress embracing District statehood. D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), who authored the bill, known as H.R. 51, expressed elation at its passage.

“The U.S. is the only Democratic country that denies both voting rights in the national legislature and local autonomy to the residents of the nation’s capital,” Norton said in a statement. “As we approach July 4th, it is long past time to apply the nation’s oldest slogan, ‘no taxation without representation,’ and the principle of consent of the governed to District of Columbia residents.”

The legislation would admit the non-federal enclaves of the District as the State of Washington, Douglass Commonwealth, named after famed city resident abolitionist Frederick Douglass, to the union.

The bill would provide a voting member of the House based on population and two U.S. senators as well as the rights and privileges the residents of all states have.

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser said statehood’s time has come.

“Today, with this historic vote, D.C. is closer than we have ever been to becoming the 51st state,” the mayor said. “I was born without representation but I swear I will not die without representation. Together, we will achieve D.C. statehood, and when we do, we will look back on this day and remember all who stood with us on the right side of history.”

D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine joined Bowser’s assessment of the District’s statehood aspiration. He said the city’s racial composition and progressive bent have been barriers in the cause.

“Throughout the 20th century, members of Congress routinely opposed empowering the District’s predominantly Black population the right to govern themselves,” the attorney general said. “Statehood is the remedy to this type of oppression.”

One representative, Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), knows personally what Racine’s complaints are regarding race. During the House debate, Johnson mentioned his connection to the District.

“I was born in Washington, D.C., and spent most of my formative years here,” Johnson said. “I grew up knowing that when my parents voted in elections, their voices wouldn’t be heard. It is not a coincidence that a largely Black city had their voices erased from the halls of the federal government. We obeyed the same laws and paid the same taxes as our fellow Americans, but we had no in taking part in the governing of America.”

During that debate, House Republicans made it clear their opposition to statehood arguing the U.S. Constitution prohibits it.

“Washington, D.C. was never meant to be a state,” Rep. Fred Keller (R-Pa.) said. “Our founders intended the federal district to be a neutral location of collaboration among all 50 states, not just subject to one state. With this ill-conceived move for D.C. statehood, Democrats will allow the new Washington, Douglass Commonwealth to have a position of superiority over the federal government in contravention of the original intent of the founders of this country.”

Keller introduced a motion to mandate full gun rights under the Second Amendment in the new state as well as protections for monuments, funding for police and law enforcement units and prohibition against sanctuary city status, autonomous zones and publicly-funded political campaigns but his measure lost, 227-182. Many Republicans, like Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) fear the new state will consistently elect two Democrats to the U.S. Senate, thereby threatening their ability to secure control.

“The answer is simple: power,” Cotton said in a June 25 statement. “The Democrats want to make Washington a state because they want two Democratic senators in perpetuity.”

Also, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has consistently pledged not to bring any D.C. statehood bills to the floor, calling it “a terrible idea.”

While most Senate Republicans seem cool to statehood, Josh Burch, the organizer and educator of Neighbors United for DC Statehood, said there are a few who may consider it.

“On my list, we have Republicans such as Tim Scott of South Carolina, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Susan Collins of Maine, Rob Portman of Ohio and Mitt Romney of Utah who we feel we can talk to,” Burch said. “I doubt that any of them will come over to our side at this point.”

There are 41 Democratic senators co-sponsoring statehood legislation and Burch would like to get the remaining six to do so. On June 29, he sent an email to his members urging them to contact Sens. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Angus King (I-Maine) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) to request their co-sponsorship.

While Burch works his Senate strategy, Anise Jenkins, executive director of Stand Up for Democracy in DC, suggests a plan used by District residents in the 1990s may work to upend McConnell in November.

“I remember in 1998, D.C. residents [were] traveling to North Carolina to campaign against Republican Senator Lauch Faircloth because he was so hard on the District,” Jenkins said. “John Edwards, the Democrat, won the race that year and perhaps we should do the same in Kentucky. D.C. residents should consider going to Kentucky to support either Charles Booker or Amy McGrath and defeat Mitch McConnell. We did it once before and we can do it again on behalf of statehood.”

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