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Senate holds subdued ‘baby step’ hearing on DC statehood

Mood was restrained, unlike a House hearing in March

A lively crowd of advocates rallied outside the temporary fencing erected around the Capitol ahead of a more low-key Senate hearing Tuesday morning, holding signs and cheering as speakers talked about the urgency of making Washington the 51st state.

“When I say ‘51st,’ you say, ‘state,’” D.C. Councilmember Janeese Lewis George shouted, pointing out from the stage.

Michael D. Brown, one of Washington’s shadow senators tasked with advocating for statehood, stood in the crowd as the clouds turned to rain. He didn’t get invited to speak at the hearing about to take place inside, but he called it another step in a long journey.

“It’s a baby step, there’s no doubt about it,” Brown said. “But still we’re moving ahead and keeping it alive.”

Organized by advocacy group DC Vote, the rally aimed to drum up hope for a statehood bill that easily passed the House in the spring but faces long odds in the Senate. Delaware Democratic Sen. Thomas R. Carper, a bill sponsor, offered some encouraging words while a brass band played a rendition of “Stand by Me.”

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Soon afterward, the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee came to order for only the second Senate statehood hearing in recent memory. It followed a well-trod formula, featuring constitutional arguments and Republican accusations of a Democratic power grab. Compared to a hearing on the House side in March, which featured tense exchanges and head-scratching tangents about car dealerships, the mood was restrained. 

At least it was a better dialogue (and slightly better attended) than the last Senate hearing on the topic, Republican Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma pointed out. His predecessor Tom Coburn, who earned the nickname “Dr. No” during his time in Washington, wasn’t exactly thrilled when the committee held a statehood hearing in 2014.

“He came into this hearing, sat down, said this is a waste of time, and walked out,” Lankford said on Tuesday, drawing laughs from the room.

A familiar face was back in town to deliver some opening remarks — former Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who Carper praised ahead of the hearing as a political independent who could inspire undecided senators to cast aside partisan concerns. 

Lieberman brought up the two previous states to join the union, Alaska and Hawaii, which were admitted within months of each other because they were expected to balance each other out politically, he said. Alaska, it was believed, would send Democrats to Washington, while Hawaii was likely to elect Republicans. 

“I can tell you in my 24 years in the Senate, and still today, the opposite is the case,” he said. “So much for deciding great constitutional issues such as this one because of passing political prognostications. It’s not only a weak basis for judgment, it’s unacceptable in our system of law and equity.” 

Statehood advocates had been hoping to catch a glimpse of Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, one of four lawmakers in the Democratic Caucus who have not yet signed on to the statehood bill. (The others are fellow Arizonan Mark Kelly, Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Maine independent Angus King.)

But those advocates were disappointed Tuesday. Sinema “checked in” to the hearing virtually but never appeared in person, nor did she say anything or ask a question, according to a Senate aide. The only members of the committee to not check in at all were GOP Sens. Rand Paul and Mitt Romney

Sinema was in talks with White House officials and a bipartisan group of senators on infrastructure during the hearing, according to media reports. A request for comment from her office on whether she attended any part of Tuesday’s hearing went unanswered. 

The bill would create a new state called Washington, Douglass Commonwealth — named after abolitionist Frederick Douglass — and extend full representation in Congress to the 700,000 residents who live there. 

With blanket opposition from the GOP and four Democratic votes outstanding, the bill is not expected to advance in the Senate, but the bill’s sponsor in the House remained upbeat on Tuesday. D.C. Democratic Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton spoke at the beginning of the hearing and stayed in the room as a spectator until the very end, even as Lieberman bailed out early.

The spotty attendance from Republican members of the panel was actually a good sign, in her view. 

“I sat through the House hearings where there was overwhelming attendance to badger statehood,” she said. “I feel optimistic that Republicans didn’t feel they had to come in large numbers to say this should not happen.”

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