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Senators keep DC statehood hope alive, despite uncertainty

Bill not expected to have enough support to overcome filibuster

A pro-statehood sign is displayed April at the Anthem music venue in Washington’s Wharf neighborhood.
A pro-statehood sign is displayed April at the Anthem music venue in Washington’s Wharf neighborhood. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Democratic senators used the chamber floor Tuesday afternoon to argue for statehood for the District of Columbia, giving advocates a boost even as the effort faces a lack of votes and an uncertain future. 

The group was led by Thomas R. Carper, lead sponsor of legislation to make D.C. the 51st state, who said the effort was another step in an awareness campaign that could one day lead to the nation’s capital becoming a state.

“My hope is to continue to make progress,” the Delaware Democrat said in an interview. “This has been a long, long struggle, and we’re picking up momentum.”

Carper was joined on the floor by Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Tim Kaine of Virginia, and Benjamin L. Cardin and Chris Van Hollen of Maryland. Carper said he hopes to further bring attention to D.C. statehood at an upcoming hearing at the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, of which he is a senior member.

Panel Chairman Gary Peters of Michigan, a co-sponsor of the statehood bill, is expected to hold a June hearing to discuss the legislation’s merits and to hear from stakeholders, a committee aide said. 

Democrats were staying positive when asked if they believed the bill could somehow get the votes it needs. 

“Always hold out hope,” Cardin said in an interview before his speech.

The bill has 45 Senate co-sponsors — the most it’s ever had, according to Carper. Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, a co-sponsor, said on the Senate floor Tuesday that statehood was an idea “whose time has come.” But the legislation lacks support from key party members, including West Virginia’s Joe Manchin III.

Manchin told a local radio show in April that he believed that making D.C. a state would require a constitutional amendment. That assertion was countered by a letter signed by nearly 40 constitutional law scholars, who argued there was “no constitutional barrier” that prevented Congress from making D.C. a state. 

Whether it’s constitutional or not, the political question remains open. Statehood for D.C. is roundly opposed by Republicans, who see it as a way to create two new safe Democratic seats in an evenly divided Senate.

On April 22, the House passed a D.C. statehood bill, 216-208, with Democrats holding together, but no Republicans crossed party lines to join them. So it’s unlikely the measure could overcome the 60-vote filibuster threshold in the Senate.

Statehood advocates said they were upbeat about Tuesday’s floor speeches, given that the issue was being recorded in the Congressional Record, and perhaps one day, the history books.

“These speeches are an important step toward a Senate hearing, a full floor vote and making D.C. the 51st state,” said Stasha Rhodes, campaign manager for the pro-statehood coalition 51 for 51. 

The speeches coincidentally fell on the one-year anniversary of the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. Earlier in the day, the chamber confirmed Kristen Clarke as the first Black woman to run the Civil Rights Division at the Justice Department. 

Democrats on Tuesday said statehood is also an important civil rights issue for the nearly 700,000 residents of the District, who lack voting representation in Congress but still pay federal taxes.

“It’s also an issue of racial justice,” Booker said on the Senate floor. “D.C. is a majority-minority city, and the people of the city deserve the same opportunity that other less populated states have to make their voices heard in Congress.”

“It is far past time that Congress right this historic wrong, and I look forward to hearing from experts and stakeholders about the need to deliver a voice and a vote in Congress to the nearly 700,000 Americans who call the District of Columbia home,” Carper said in a statement regarding Peters’ commitment to holding a hearing next month. “With support from the House, White House and a record amount of cosponsors in the Senate, I am more confident than ever that we can make D.C. statehood a reality this Congress.”

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