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As Congress prepares to take up D.C. statehood, national support grows

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As the House prepares to take up the issue this week of statehood for the District of Columbia, a new national poll finds that 54% of likely voters think D.C. should be a state, a record high level of support.

The poll, conducted by Data for Progress and the progressive advocacy coalition Democracy for All 2021 Action and shared first with CBS News, shows 74% of Democratic respondents approve of statehood for D.C., along with 34% of Republicans. 

The poll found that clear majorities among likely voters in urban (57%) and suburban (56%) areas, as well as in swing states (57%), support D.C. statehood to allow for voting representation in Congress. About half of voters in rural areas of the country agree.

On Monday, the House Committee on Oversight and Reform held a hearing on a bill to establish D.C. as the nation's 51st state.  

In January, Eleanor Holmes Norton, who represents the District in Congress as a non-voting delegate, reintroduced H.R. 51, which would create the state of Washington, Douglass Commonwealth – named for Frederick Douglass. The measure would give D.C. two U.S. senators and a voting representative in the House.

The House passed a bill to make D.C. a state last year by a vote of 232-180, but it died in the Republican-led Senate.

Statehood proponents hope this time is different, since Democrats now control the House, the Senate, and the White House.

"Adding D.C. statehood and adding a state should not be about politics. It's about equality. It's about democracy," House Committee on Oversight and Reform Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney said Monday. "It is the responsibility of Congress to ensure that Americans are given their full rights demanded by the Constitution."

The bill has 215 co-sponsors, and its passage in the House is all but inevitable. Senator Tom Carper, Democrat of Delaware, has introduced a companion bill in the Senate, with 40 of the 50 Democratic senators signed on as co-sponsors. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has committed to bringing the bill to the Senate Floor.

Proponents argue D.C. statehood is necessary because the city's majority-Black and Brown population is disenfranchised by their lack of representation in Congress. D.C. would be the only plurality-Black state in the country if statehood were to pass.

Norton and other proponents note D.C. pays more in federal taxes than 21 states and more per capita than any state, according to 2019 IRS data. The District also has a larger population than Vermont and Wyoming but has limited non-voting representation in Congress – Norton may draft legislation but cannot vote. D.C. has no vote in the U.S. Senate. 

Norton was encouraged by the poll's findings. "This now has captured the majority of American voters, which makes us believe that the watchword, 'taxation without representation,' is on its way out,"  she told CBS News in an interview. She maintained that last year's congressional hearings on the bill informed Americans about how little authority the District's officials have over their own territory. Congress has exclusive jurisdiction over the nation's capital, meaning local legislation, including the D.C. budget, must be approved by Congress. 

The Capitol riot and the delay in getting National Guard reinforcements "helped further educate the American people, because on January 6th, the then-President kept our D.C. National Guard from coming to rescue the Capitol," Norton said. "They were delayed three hours. And during that three hours, a lot of damage was done" 

Governors have the authority to deploy their National Guard, but in the District, that power lies with the federal government. "Not even having control over your own National Guard means you can't save the Capitol and maybe you can't even save yourselves."

Norton has introduced a bill that would give the District's mayor the ability to activate the D.C. National Guard, and she expects it to pass the House.

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser told lawmakers at the hearing Monday, "I was born in Washington, DC, and generations of my family, through no choice of our own, have been denied the fundamental right promised to all Americans, the right to full representation in Congress. The simple fact is — denying American citizens a vote in the body that taxes them goes against the founding principles of this great nation. The disenfranchisement of Washingtonians is one of the remaining glaring civil rights and voting rights issues of our time."

She has urged Congress to get the statehood bill to President Biden, who has said in the past that he favors it. In a briefing last week, White House press secretary Jen Psaki affirmed he still believes District residents "deserve representation," adding, "that's why he supports D.C. statehood."

But statehood faces staunch opposition by Republicans, who argue it's an attempt by Democrats to shore up their majorities by adding more seats in Congress. D.C. voters overwhelmingly vote Democratic – President Biden won 92% of the District's vote.

The House Oversight Committee's ranking member, Congressman James Comer, says the bill "is actually Plan B of the Democrats' political power grab. Plan A was to eliminate the filibuster in the Senate." After pointing out that Democrats do not yet have the support to do this, he went on to accuse House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of using "an unconstitutional bill" to make Washington, D.C. the 51st state, and said it was part of the "radical leftist agenda to reshape America, along with the Green New Deal, defunding the police, and packing the U.S. Supreme Court."

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has referred to D.C. statehood as "full-bore socialism."

Georgia Republican Congressman Jody Hice argued that the District is simply not like other states. "D.C. would be the only state, the only state, without an airport," he said. "Without a car dealership. Without a capital city. Without a landfill....If there's a car dealership in D.C., I apologize for being wrong. I have no idea where it is."

And Zack Smith, a legal fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, argued that making D.C. a state is at odds with the intent of the Framers of the Constitution.

"Framers also wanted to avoid one state having undo influence over the federal government. There's no question that D.C. residents already impact the national debate," he said. "For the members here today, how many of you saw D.C. statehood yard signs or bumper stickers or banners on your way to this hearing today? I certainly did. Where else in the nation could such simple actions reach so many members of Congress?"

Though Democrats hold a razor-thin majority in the Senate, the bill would need 10 Republican supporters to overcome a filibuster blocking the bill. Statehood activists have called for the elimination of the filibuster, which would allow the measure to be approved with only 51 votes.

There is currently a heated debate in the Senate surrounding filibuster reform or its elimination. In an interview last week with ABC News, President Biden endorsed a return to the "talking filibuster," which would require a senator to speak continuously on the floor to sustain an objection to a bill. However, at this point, Democrats lack the votes to eliminate it.

But even if the measure fails to pass this year, Norton remains hopeful. "In 2022, I do think we will have a better chance for statehood in both houses," she said, based on her belief that Democrats will maintain their edge in the House and expand their majority in the Senate.

Every time statehood faces congressional hearings or is brought to the floor for a vote, the issue gets more attention, she said. "I'm making good use of every time we do it to increase support for D.C. statehood around the country," Norton said. "...Statehood is a major bill, a major change in our country, but it's a change that the polls show the American people want to see."

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