Majority of Senate Democrats Push for Washington, D.C. Statehood

This aerial view of Capitol Hill is seen on May 25, 2020, in Washington, DC. - US House Democrats will make history Friday by voting for Washington DC to become the nation's 51st state, but the move, a push for voting rights for the capital's residents, is doomed in the …

Approximately 39 members of the Democratic conference within the United States Senate—more than half of the party’s overall majority within the chamber—are backing an effort to grant statehood to Washington, D.C.

Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE), a longtime ally of President Joe Biden, introduced legislation on Wednesday to make the District of Columbia the country’s 51st state. Carper, who has introduced similar legislation in the past, asserts that Biden’s election, accompanied by full Democratic control of Congress, presents the perfect opportunity “to call out this historic injustice.”

“This isn’t a Republican or Democratic issue,” Carper said in a press release accompanying the legislation. “It’s an American issue because the lack of fair representation for D.C. residents is clearly inconsistent with the values on which this country was founded.”

Currently, the district has no formal power in the national legislature. Every two years, the district elects one delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives to advocate on its behalf. Although the delegate can introduce legislation and sit on committees, they are not allowed to cast votes within the chamber. The district’s non-voting status in the House is similar to that of territories like Guam and Puerto Rico.

In the Senate, the district’s position is even more tenuous. While D.C.’s voters elect two shadow senators to represent them in the chamber, the positions are not officially recognized by the chamber. As such, unlike in the House, the district’s shadow senators are not only prohibited from voting, but are also barred from partaking in any legislative deliberation. The positions have generally been ceremonial, with the shadow senators serving mainly as public advocates for the cause of statehood.

Despite the fact that D.C. has existed under such status since 1801, Carper argued on Wednesday the time had finally arrived to “right this wrong.” A record number of Senate Democrats appear to agree with that sentiment. When the Delaware lawmaker introduced his bill, more than 38 other Senate Democrats signed on as cosponsors. The number of cosponsors is nearly double that garnered by Carper’s previous efforts to pass the legislation in 2013 and 2015.

Even though Carper and the bill’s other cosponsors have couched the argument in favor of the legislation using the rhetoric of “no taxation without representation,” many also point to the fact that D.C. statehood would strengthen Democrats significantly in the Senate. At the moment, the party only holds 50 seats within the chamber, the same number as Republicans. Democrats, however, find themselves in the majority thanks to the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris.

Carper’s bill, if enacted, would tip the balance in the Democrats’ favor. Given that Democrats have not garnered less than 90 percent across the district in the last three presidential elections, the party would be heavily favored to gain two additional seats within the Senate upon statehood.

With two additional seats in the chamber from a heavily liberal constituency, some argue that Democrats would then be able to sideline the opposition of moderates, like Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), to abolish the legislative filibuster. Such a move would make enacting progressive priroties, including universal healthcare and expanded access to abortion, possible via only a majority vote.

Regardless of such speculation, it is unclear at the moment whether there are enough votes for Democrats to achieve D.C. statehood. Carper’s bill, given that the filibuster is likely to remain intact, would require at least 60 votes within the Senate to assure passage.

Those advocating for the district’s statehood, however, are likely to make significant progress this legislative session. On Wednesday, upon introduction, Carper’s bill was referred to the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee. The chairman of that panel, Sen. Gary Peter (D-MI), is one of the 38 Democrats who has signed onto the bill as a cosponsor. Peters, who did not support legislation to advance D.C. statehood until 2019, is likely to have significant sway over at last getting the bill past his committee and onto the floor of the Senate.

Neither Carper nor Peters’ office returned requests for comment on this story.


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