At Mark Begich’s 52nd Birthday Party, Talk Turns to District Becoming 51st State

Posted March 27, 2014 at 12:20pm

On Wednesday night, D.C. Shadow Sen. Paul Strauss joined Sen. Mark Begich at an Indiana Avenue sports bar to help celebrate the Alaska Democrat’s 52nd birthday — the number 51 also came up.

Begich, who has previously expressed his support for the District’s push to become the 51st state, committed to holding a Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee hearing that could help advance D.C.’s fight for greater autonomy from Congress, the District Democrat told CQ Roll Call on Thursday.

Strauss said he had been given permission to spread the word on behalf of Begich’s staff. The Alaska Democrat confirmed his intent on Thursday, saying he was encouraged by House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa’s efforts on behalf of the District.

“We’re trying. We don’t know what the schedule will be yet, but definitely want to move those two bills, because I think for all the reasons that I’ve heard from Congressman Issa on his side and also seeing kind of what they need to do as a former mayor and I think there’s an opportunity,”Begich said, referring to his own time as mayor of Anchorage. “In short order, we’ll try to bring those forward. I’m committed to try to get these bills to the committee at some point.”

As for the usual obstacles, like abortion and gun-related amendments, Begich told CQ Roll Call, “my goal is to keep these clean and do whatever we can to make that happen.”

Of the two measures Begich is readying, one would grant the District legislative autonomy, the other budget autonomy. Both would be modeled after legislation that former Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, I-Conn., tried to advance in 2012.

“We think, given the sentiment about not having the city shut down during the shutdown, and, you know, just doubts about what’s going to happen with the budget and the partisan atmosphere going forward, there’s probably some reasonable support for it on both sides,” Strauss said.

Previous efforts to free the District’s local dollars from the congressional appropriations process have been thwarted by policy riders relating to gun ownership and abortion.

In 2010, Democrats shelved a bill that would have granted D.C. a vote in Congress because gun-rights supporters threatened to attach language related to firearms. In 2011, D.C. officials asked Issa to put off consideration of the California Republican’s autonomy measure because it included a codified prohibition on the city spending its own money to pay for abortions. In 2012, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., introduced amendments to Lieberman’s budget autonomy bill that would have changed policies relating to concealed carry, abortion and labor unions.

House Republicans on the Judiciary Committee dragged D.C. into the abortion fight earlier this year.

“I understand that abortion is a controversial issue that sometimes people approach from different perspectives … but wherever you are on that ideological spectrum, I have yet to find anybody who can rationally articulate that whatever policy we set should be based on zip code,” Strauss said. “I expect that is going to be a challenging issue in a conference committee.”

The shadow senator, who does not have voting rights in the Senate and makes lobbying for statehood his top issue on Capitol Hill, believes the scales are tipped in the District’s favor in both chambers when it comes to getting the bills passed.

Budget and legislative autonomy would be helpful in “reducing paperwork and reducing bureaucracy, and consistent with some of the Republican messages of ending government waste.”

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., made a similar argument when she introduced her own legislative autonomy bill earlier this year.

Alaska, the 49th state, can relate to the District’s struggle for statehood. Before joining the United States in 1959, Alaska sent its own shadow delegation to Congress.

Strauss called it a “kinship,” saying both delegations to the 2012 Democratic National Convention were exiled to a suburban hotel outside of downtown Charlotte, N.C., “so we did a lot of bonding during the convention, too.”

Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Thomas R. Carper, D-Del., gave D.C. statehood supporters hope for a hearing last summer, with a tweet suggesting one would be scheduled in the fall. His staff had no additional details on Thursday.