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Lawmakers and a lawsuit bring new life to giving D.C. a vote in Congress

The bill would make D.C. the 51st state, and it calls for the election of two senators and one House representative

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., left, and D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser announced on May 30 that the House Committee on Oversight and Reform would hold a hearing on D.C. statehood on July 24th. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., left, and D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser announced on May 30 that the House Committee on Oversight and Reform would hold a hearing on D.C. statehood on July 24th. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Lawmakers and a lawsuit with high-profile support are bringing renewed attention to something long sought by Washington, D.C., residents — a vote for the District in Congress. 

A lawsuit filed in federal district court in Washington last year offering a new legal theory for why voting rights should be granted has earned recent support from Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the League of Women Voters. 

A bill by D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton to grant the District statehood will get a hearing next month in the House Oversight and Reform Committee. But a lawsuit could be D.C. residents’ best chance at statehood because even if the House takes action, it may not get a vote in the Republican-controlled Senate. 

[DC statehood bill set for hearing with new backing from Hoyer]

Nineteen years ago, the Supreme Court turned back a lawsuit seeking to let Washington residents elect representatives and senators. It determined they do not have a right to representation because the Constitution only grants that to people who live in states.

Undeterred, DC Appleseed, an advocacy group, and its pro bono law firm Harris, Wiltshire & Grannis tried again, filing a new lawsuit in Washington federal court last November. 

Walter Smith, DC Appleseed’s executive director, said Congress’ consideration of D.C. voting rights legislation in the intervening decades shows Congress believes it has the power to confer voting rights on its own, without the need for a constitutional amendment.

The Senate passed a bill granting D.C. voting rights in 2009, but it was pulled by the House after divisive provisions that would have clawed back much of the District’s gun control laws were attached.

Smith argues that failing to give D.C. voting rights, while still collecting federal taxes from district residents, infringes District residents’ First Amendment right of association and that it violates their right to equal protection and due process. 

Six parties, including Pelosi and the League of Women Voters, filed amicus briefs in June supporting DC Appleseed. The group expects oral arguments will be held this fall.

If the court sides with DC Appleseed, the city won’t have to concede gun control laws, or anything else, for a vote, he said. 

“If the court says it’s unconstitutional they have to give us the vote, period,” Smith said.

Congressional action

House Democrats plan to make clear their view that Congress has the right to grant D.C. statehood as well.

Norton says she expects a vote on the bill to make D.C. the 51st state this year. In May, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland reversed his long-held stance on the matter, saying he now supports statehood.

 The Democrats’ bill,  — appropriately filed as H.R. 51 — will get a Committee on Oversight and Reform hearing on July 24. It calls for the Mayor of the District of Columbia to issue a proclamation calling for the first elections to Congress of two senators and one representative of the commonwealth.

HR 51 has over 200 cosponsors in the House, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi strongly endorsed the bill. No Republicans have signed on in support. 

A Senate bill, currently in the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, has 32 co-sponsors. None are Republican and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is unlikely to consider it.

Republicans have long opposed giving statehood status to the District because it consistently votes heavily for Democrats, who would gain additional power in Congress.

A spokesman did not have information on who will testify at the House hearing Wednesday. 

In an earlier statement announcing the hearing, Cummings commended Norton for “ensuring that hundreds of thousands of American citizens who live in our nation’s capital are afforded the same rights as other Americans across the country.”

Smith said it’s good timing that Appleseed’s lawsuit was moving through the courts while a statehood push is happening on Capitol Hill. 

“I think that the statehood bill and our lawsuit make a wonderful one-two punch,” he said. “And I think the leadership believes that too.”

Katherine Tully-McManus contributed to this story.

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