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With Senate as Main Focus, D.C. Prepares for Statehood Fight

Prospects for Victory Altered by Slim Majority in Upper Chamber

Even though the House Oversight and Reform Committee’s hearing on D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton’s bill to make the District the 51st state of the union has been changed from March 11 to March 22, statehood activists are gearing up for a fight that may ultimately be decided on the floor of the U.S. Senate.

Norton said she learned of the change in the hearing date from Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), chair of the House Oversight and Reform Committee. The change didn’t trouble her.

“With Democrats in control of the White House, the House and the Senate, we have never been closer to D.C. statehood,” the delegate said. “This hearing will inform the many Americans who still do not know that the 712,000 D.C. residents pay full federal taxes but have no voting representation in Congress, and that Congress has the final say on all local D.C. matters.

“Following the House passage of the bill in June, some national polls have found that support for D.C. statehood has increased to around 50 percent. It is long past time for Congress to act.”

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson are among the witnesses for statehood at the hearing.

Statehood advocates expect Norton’s bill to ultimately pass the House like it did last year but now that Democrats hold slim control of the Senate, the fight takes on different dimensions.

The District scored a victory on March 6 in the Senate when it treated the District as a state over the matter of federal funds from the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 Relief Act that passed the chamber, 50-49. The House passed the COVID-19 Relief Act fully vesting the District with its federal funds a few days before the Senate took action.

Norton praised the Senate for the adjustment from last year, reversing congressional action to treat the District as a territory in the CARES Act. That measure shortchanged the city hundreds of millions of dollars.

“Last year at this time, D.C. endured a gut punch when, during the beginning of the catastrophic, unpredictable pandemic, Senate Republicans deliberately withheld funds from the District categorizing it as a territory instead of a state for fiscal relief in the CARES Act,” Norton said.

“Since March 27, 2020, when the CARES Act was enacted, over 40,000 residents have tested positive for COVID-19, and over 1,000 have died,” she said.

But the new law treats D.C. differently, she said. “The American Rescue Plan arms the District with the tools to fight the coronavirus,” she said.

“It will save lives by increasing the breadth of D.C.’s coronavirus response efforts, it will save jobs by increasing the number of small businesses that will survive this pandemic, and it will provide much-needed relief to D.C. families.”

Bowser also praised the Senate.

“My federal and regional affairs staff under the leadership of Beverly Perry worked very hard with the Biden administration, Congress and of course, our delegate,” Bowser said at a news conference on March 8. “I really praise President Biden for making it clear to the senators that D.C. is to be made whole.”

Making the District treated as a state, through statehood, has become the mission of 51 for 51, an organization dedicated to eliminating the filibuster in the Senate so a D.C. statehood bill can have a chance to pass. The group’s lead organizer, Jamal Holtz, said expects the House to pass Norton’s bill but the real fight will be in the Senate.

“Our organization’s position is that if the Senate can pass a Supreme Court Justice because of a rule change initiated by Sen. Mitch McConnell eliminating the filibuster then they can do the same for a D.C. statehood bill,” Holtz said. “Sen. Thomas Carper’s D.C. statehood bill has 40 co-sponsors, the most ever, and we are working on getting all Democrats on board.”

Holtz said when his organization began its work to change the rules eliminating the filibuster in the Senate, particularly for statehood legislation, people didn’t take them seriously.

Holtz said educating through social media has become a chief mode of operation due to the pandemic. He said virtual lobbying days have taken place and well as traditional modes such as writing and sending emails and phone calls to senators’ staffers.

Holtz said his organization has made progress and wants it to translate to a supportive Senate.

“Through hard work and engaging people throughout the country and the Democratic presidential candidates, we made a lot of progress,” he said. “We have spent a great deal of time educating people about statehood and we have found when they hear the full story that Washington, D.C. doesn’t just consist of the White House and the Capitol and there are real live human beings there who live in neighborhoods, they change their minds and support statehood.”

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