House nears vote to approve statehood for Washington, DC

Shortly after Eleanor Holmes Norton was first elected as Washington’s non-voting delegate to the US Congress, she secured a vote in the House of Representatives to make the nation’s capital the 51st US state.

The measure failed, 277-153, garnering the support of fewer than half of Democrats and just one Republican.

That was 1993.

Now, more than a quarter of a century later, Ms Holmes Norton, an 83-year-old Democrat who uses the title congresswoman, has secured another vote on statehood for the US capital.

This time, the bill will pass.

The Democratic-controlled House is expected to overwhelmingly support Ms Holmes Norton’s “Washington DC Admission Act” when it votes on the measure on Friday. The bill would make the District of Columbia — which forms Washington — the 51st state in the union and give it full representation in Congress, with two senators and one voting House member.

The US constitution allowed for the creation of a federal district, and the 23rd amendment, adopted in 1961, gave the city three Electoral College votes in presidential elections.

But Washington, DC, has never had voting representation in Congress, despite having over 700,000 residents — more than Vermont and Wyoming — and paying more in federal taxes per capita than any state. Car registration plates in the district bear the slogan “End taxation without representation”, echoing the “No taxation without representation” rallying cry of the American Revolution.

While Mitch McConnell, the Senate’s top Republican, has said he will not take up the bill, and President Donald Trump has insisted DC will “never” be a state, Ms Holmes Norton — with an eye towards November’s national election — remains optimistic.

“I am not the least bit deterred by the opposition of the Republican Senate and certainly not the president of the United States,” the life-long resident of Washington told the Financial Times in a recent interview.

“His popularity has waned so that he is likely not to be president by the time this bill comes over,” she said of Mr Trump, adding that the Republican-held Senate is also in “real danger of turning Democratic”.

A third of the Senate’s 100 members are up for re-election in November, alongside the entire House and Mr Trump, who faces Democrat Joe Biden, the former US vice-president, in the presidential contest.

Most major opinion polls give Mr Biden a double-digit lead over Mr Trump, whose approval rating has fallen in recent months over his response to the coronavirus pandemic and the killing of George Floyd.

When asked whether Mr Biden would be a partner in her career-long pursuit, Ms Holmes Norton laughed. “Joe Biden is the least of my worries,” she said. “I am super confident that he will not only support DC statehood, he will lead the way to DC statehood.”

Despite support from fellow Democrats — and 64 per cent of Americans surveyed by Gallup in 2019 — Ms Holmes Norton faces an uphill battle. Republicans remain staunchly opposed to statehood for the capital, given the district’s electorate is overwhelmingly Democratic — just 4 per cent of Washington residents supported Mr Trump’s presidential bid in 2016.

Ms Holmes Norton, who is African American, said there was also “no question that race is an ingredient to the opposition” to statehood for the nation’s capital, where almost half the population is black.

Even if Democrats were to carry off an upset and take back control of the Senate, filibuster rules mean it would take 60 votes to secure statehood and Republicans would probably be able to block the measure.

“The filibuster has stopped progressive legislation and has created what we now know as the Senate graveyard,” said Stasha Rhodes, campaign manager of 51 for 51, a group seeking to change the Senate rules to allow for DC’s statehood to pass by a simple majority.

“DC is not a state because of racism,” she added. “Right now in our country, people are rising up against racism. They are taking to the streets, and they are protesting, not just racism in our criminal justice system, but racism in every form. In the DC statehood movement, we are fighting against structural racism that is deeply ingrained in the fabric of American democracy.”

As the struggle for statehood continues, Ms Holmes Norton sees a potent ally in Muriel Bowser, the city’s 47-year-old African-American mayor who was thrust into the national spotlight this month when she locked horns with Mr Trump over the president’s use of military troops to quell Black Lives Matter protests.

Ms Bowser has used her national media appearances to make the case for DC’s statehood.

“To her credit, she has used her platform to tell Americans and to tell the world what most do not know, and that is that we don’t have the same rights as other Americans,” Ms Holmes Norton said.

“She understands to make maximum use of it, because like me, she is a native Washingtonian, she has had to live with it all her life.”