House passes D.C. statehood bill, but votes still lacking in Senate

They should call the new state Area 51
Supporters of D.C. statehood in Northern Nevada. (Photo courtesy Indivisible Project)
They should call the new state Area 51
Supporters of D.C. statehood in Northern Nevada. (Photo courtesy Indivisible Project)

For the second time, the U.S. House of Representatives has passed a measure to make the District of Columbia the 51st state, sending the historic bill to the Senate on a party-line vote.

“We look forward to a swift vote in the Senate on this essential legislation,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, (D-Calif.), said ahead of Thursday’s 216-208 vote.

But if the narrowly Democratic-controlled Senate were to speedily bring up the measure, it would be all but guaranteed to fail.

More senators have co-sponsored the statehood bill than ever before, including both Democrats from Nevada, Catherine Cortez Masto and Jacky Rosen.

However, five members of the Democratic caucus have not signed on: Sens. Mark Kelly and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona; Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire; Joe Manchin of West Virginia; and Angus King of Maine, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats.

Hesitation from this handful of Democrats, plus the Senate’s 60-vote threshold that would necessitate support from some Republicans, means the proposal is unlikely to reach the president’s desk anytime soon.

While the odds of enactment remain long, Thursday’s House vote comes as at a time when D.C. statehood has blossomed as a mainstream issue for Democrats. When a statehood bill first came up for a House vote in 1993, more than 100 Democrats opposed the idea.

Now, the proposal has passed the House in two consecutive years. Nearly every House Democrat signed on to cosponsor the bill this year, including Nevada’s Dina Titus and Steven Horsford.

President Joe Biden has offered his backing as well. The White House issued a formal statement of support, saying that making D.C. a state would “make our union stronger and more just.”

This issue has been tied in to a broader focus by national Democrats on voting rights, who argue that it’s fundamentally undemocratic for the 700,000 residents of D.C. to lack a voice in Congress. Not only do residents not have representation in the Senate, Congress can strike down D.C.’s local laws.

The legislation, H.R. 51, which has been put forth each year by D.C.’s non-voting representative, Democrat Eleanor Holmes Norton, would resolve that by splitting the official parts of the nation’s capital from the neighborhoods where its residents live.

The federal district would shrink down to a small complex of federal buildings, such as the Capitol and the White House. The remainder of what’s now D.C. would be split off to become a state, with the same congressional representation as other states.

D.C. would be the first state to be added since 1959, when Alaska and Hawaii joined the U.S.

Republicans have fiercely opposed statehood for D.C., accusing Democrats of supporting statehood for the reliably Democratic city because it would give them two more votes in the Senate.

Democrats dismiss the argument of partisanship with one of their own: that GOP lawmakers are not concerned about granting equal representation to the residents of D.C. because the largest share of D.C. residents are Black, and they rarely vote for Republicans.

After Thursday’s House vote, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) did not give a timeline for the proposal’s fate in that chamber, saying only that supporters would “do everything we can to pass it.”

Should backers find a way to navigate the bill through the obstacles of the Senate, a group of Republican attorneys general have already declared their intention to pursue legal action.

Laura Olson
Laura covers the nation's capital as a senior reporter for States Newsroom, a network of nonprofit outlets that includes Nevada Current. Her areas of coverage include politics and policy, lobbying, elections, and campaign finance.