House Democratic leaders are racing ahead with legislation to grant statehood to Washington, D.C., scheduling a June 26 vote on the historic — and highly controversial — bill, which will arrive amid the heightened calls for black empowerment that have followed the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota.
In February, the House Oversight and Reform Committee had approved the proposal, marking the first time a D.C. statehood bill had won committee passage since 1993.
Democratic leaders are now seeking to tap into the undercurrent of national unrest that's followed the death of Floyd — an unarmed African American man killed last month at the hands of Minneapolis police — to move the bill through the full House and pressure Senate Republicans to take it up.
The absence of voting power has long been an issue of contention for the residents of Washington, where the population outweighs that of several states but the one congressional representative lacks the authority to vote on the floor.
"What kind of a concept is that, that if I move to my nation's capital I will be less of a citizen in America?" House Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerOn The Money — Presented by Wells Fargo — Pelosi plows full speed ahead on jam-packed agenda Hoyer affirms House will vote Sept. 27 on bipartisan infrastructure bill House to act on debt ceiling next week MORE (D-Md.) asked Tuesday during a press briefing in the Capitol.
The Democrats' proposal, sponsored by Del. Eleanor Holmes NortonEleanor Holmes NortonThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by National Industries for the Blind - Tight security for Capitol rally; Biden agenda slows Security forces under pressure to prevent repeat of Jan. 6 Overnight Health Care — Democrats face setback on drug pricing MORE (D-D.C.), would undo that disparity, making D.C. the 51st state in the union and empowering its nearly 700,000 residents with one vote in the House and two in the Senate.
Supporters of the change argue that D.C. residents pay taxes, fight in wars, are bound by federal statutes — and should therefore not be left powerless on Capitol Hill.
"This deprivation of statehood is unjust, unequal, undemocratic and unacceptable," said Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiRepublicans caught in California's recall trap Raise the debt limit while starting to fix the budget 'Justice for J6' organizer calls on demonstrators to respect law enforcement MORE (D-Calif.).
The statehood issue has gained prominence since Washington has emerged as an epicenter of the Black Lives Matter movement in the aftermath of Floyd's death. Tens of thousands of people have descended on the nation's capital in recent weeks, many of them gathering around the White House to protest President TrumpDonald TrumpKinzinger says Trump 'winning' because so many Republicans 'have remained silent' Our remote warfare counterterrorism strategy is more risk than reward Far-right rally draws small crowd, large police presence at Capitol MORE's aggressive response, which initially featured the deployment of federal and National Guard troops around the District.
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser said Tuesday that no state would tolerate such a militant federal response to peaceful protests — and Washington shouldn't have to either.
"There shouldn't be troops from other states in Washington, D.C. There shouldn't be federal forces advancing against Americans. And there very definitely shouldn't be soldiers stationed around our city waiting for the 'go' to attack Americans in a local policing matter," Bowser said.
Norton's bill is just one facet of the Democrats' multi-pronged response to Floyd's death, which features a series of long sought reforms designed to combat racial disparities across a swath of cultural sectors.
Most immediately, Democrats are seeking to move criminal justice reforms aimed at reining in racial profiling and police brutality, a package also scheduled for a floor vote next week.
But Democratic leaders are also promising a host of separate reform bills touching on racial disparities in different facets of society, from health care and environmental justice to voting rights and infrastructure. In each case, blacks and other minorities are shown to suffer disadvantages in access to those rights and services. Pelosi has characterized Floyd's death as "an opportunity" to address those iniquities legislatively.
The push for D.C. statehood, while hardly new, has never gained much traction on Capitol Hill, largely because the idea is anathema to Republicans, who are wary of empowering a district so lopsidedly Democratic.
Trump has also voiced his staunch opposition to the change.
Republicans have not disguised their disdain for the District. In Congress's emergency response to the coronavirus pandemic, GOP leaders insisted that Washington be treated like a territory rather than a state — a formulaic distinction which had the practical effect of reducing the city's funding share by hundreds of millions of dollars.
Republican opponents of D.C. statehood maintain that Washington, as the seat of the federal government, plays a unique role in the country's legal fabric, and should therefore adhere to a unique set of rules.
Democratic supporters see more nefarious reasons for the opposition, saying much of the controversy is rooted in racial considerations.
"Certainly race and the status of Washington, D.C., have been long connected," Bowser said. "We are too Democratic, too black, too liberal, too this, too that."
The House bill has little chance of being considered in the GOP-controlled Senate. But it will serve as a marker for Democrats heading into an election year when both the White House and the Senate are up for grabs — and issues of race and inequality are expected to be significant factors at the polls.