What are Democrats waiting for on DC statehood?

Michelle Kinsey Bruns/flickr

On Jan. 24, 2013, Sen. Tom Carper (D) of Delaware introduced a bill that would make Washington, D.C., the 51st state.

More than year later and nothing has happened! This is very difficult to understand.

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Carper has the distinct advantage of being chairman of the committee where the bill goes for consideration, Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs.

At last year’s dedication ceremony for the placing of the D.C. Frederick Douglass statue on Capitol Hill, his office said hearings would be held in the fall of 2013. No hearing has yet occurred.

The last time the issue of D.C. statehood had any visibility or movement at all was 21 years ago. Democrats controlled both houses, and then-President Clinton had come out for D.C. statehood as a candidate. There was a vote in the House in November 1993, but it fell short with only 153 votes.

In the Senate, the bill went nowhere.

There was a hearing held in the spring of 1994. It was a charade. Titled “Informational Hearing,” it was a lame cosmetic attempt to do something to satisfy statehood advocates. Because this was not a hearing on the statehood bill itself, it is no surprise the bill died.

More than two decades later, things are quite different.

First and foremost, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is a strong and fervent supporter. (In 1993, then-Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, D-Maine, said or did nothing on the issue.)

At the Frederick Douglass statue ceremony, Reid used the occasion to sign onto the bill as a co-sponsor. With great enthusiasm and conviction — looking straight at Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) — he said the citizens of D.C. “deserve the same rights as those of Ohio and Kentucky.”

All lawmakers in the Senate Democratic leadership, with the exception of Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), are co-sponsors of the bill. Members of Carper’s committee who will vote for the bill are Sens. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and Mark Begich (D-Alaska). Both are huge GOP targets this election year.

The others, Democratic Sens. Carl Levin (Mich.), Claire McCaskill (Mo.), Jon Tester (Mont.), Tammy Baldwin (Wis.), Mark Pryor (Ark.) and Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.), have not taken a position or have not responded to inquiries.

It is understandable that Carper would not hold hearings unless he has the Democratic votes to report the bill out. But the legitimate question is: Is he talking to these undecided or uncommitted senators? Is he lobbying for his own bill so that it will move?

When I last asked Reid if he would bring the bill up for a vote if it comes favorably out of committee, he said, “We will make it happen.”

One major problem is D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D). She should be talking to and lobbying uncommitted senators on the committee. Maybe she doesn’t want D.C. to actually become a state.

If it were to become a state, her safe seat would no longer be safe. Someone else might seek it, and Norton would become vulnerable.

I have no illusions about the Republican-controlled House bringing up the bill. But it also doesn’t help when Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.), the head of the Democratic National Committee, is not championing the legislation.

Last year when I pressed her, she said D.C. voting rights are “not a national issue.”

The bottom line is that a vote in the Senate would dramatically raise the visibility.

A vote in the Senate should be the goal. It is doable and could and should be done this year. The only ones who are holding D.C. back are not our enemies, but our friends.

 

Plotkin has worked as a political analyst for WAMU radio, WTOP radio and Fox 5 WTTG. He is presently a contributor to the BBC on American politics.