House passes bill to make DC the 51st state, obstacles remain in the Senate

We explain what it would mean for Washington to win statehood, and the hurdles it faces to get there.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
7 min read
Eleanor Holmes Norton on the steps of the Capitol

Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat representing Washington DC, holds a card on the Capitol steps with the final vote count after the House passed HR 51 by a 216-208 vote. The legislation would create the new state of Washington, Douglass Commonwealth, with one representative and two senators. 

Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images

The House of Representatives voted on Thursday to pass a bill to make Washington DC the 51st state. But the legislation will face a huge obstacle in the Senate, where it must overcome a Republican filibuster.

The vote in the House was 216 to 208, split along party lines with Democrats supporting passage. The legislation now faces stiff opposition in the Senate, where Democrats hold 50 seats and Republicans hold 50 seats. Democrats only slightly control the chamber with a tie-breaking vote from Vice President Kamala Harris. The bill would need the votes of every Democrat and at least 10 Republicans to clear the 60-vote threshold to overcome a Republican filibuster. 

Democrats say making DC the 51st state is important to ensure equal representation in Congress. But Republicans argue the statehood question is a partisan effort by Democrats to gain more votes in the Senate to push through more progressive policies. Washington DC has a large African American population, and its constituents tend to vote overwhelmingly for Democrats.

Legislation for DC statehood was reintroduced in January in the House by Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democratic delegate representing the district. Sen. Tom Carper, a Democrat from Delaware, has introduced a companion bill in the Senate. 

The push to make Washington a state comes 30 years after Norton first took up the issue in the House. Last year, in a historic vote, a Democratic-led House passed the bill, but it never reached the GOP-controlled Senate.

"With Democrats in control of the White House, the House and the Senate, we have never been closer to D.C. statehood," Norton said in a statement when the bill was introduced. "This hearing will inform the many Americans who still do not know that the 712,000 DC residents pay full federal taxes but have no voting representation in Congress, and that Congress has the final say on all local DC matters."

The bill would reduce the size of the federal district and admit the newly named Washington, Douglass Commonwealth as the 51st state. It would also give DC's residents a voting representative in the House and two US senators. Advocates say the fight for statehood is about racial justice, given that the majority of DC's residents are people of color. 

What's at stake could be the balance of power in the US Senate. Since Washington is overwhelmingly a Democratic city, statehood would almost certainly guarantee two more Democratic senators. With that extra measure of control, the party would be in a better position to set the agenda on a number of items, including big tech issues, such as a new net neutrality law and reforms to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. 

The statehood bill has had strong support among Democrats in House, with more than 200 co-sponsoring the legislation in the House. The companion Senate bill has 38 co-sponsors, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York. President Joe Biden said during the campaign that he'd support statehood for Washington.

No Republicans have expressed support for the bill in the House or Senate.

Here's a look at what statehood for Washington would mean, and how it might happen.

What is Washington DC? 

Washington DC isn't a state; it's a district -- the District of Columbia. Its creation comes directly from the US Constitution, which provided that the district, "not exceeding 10 Miles square," would "become the Seat of the Government of the United States."

Congress established the federal district in 1790 to serve as the nation's capital, from land belonging to the states of Maryland and Virginia. The Constitution dictates that the federal district be under the jurisdiction of the US Congress. 

Who governs Washington?

Through the Home Rule Act of 1973, Washington DC can elect its own officials. The District of Columbia doesn't have a governor or a state legislature. Instead, it has a mayor and the DC Council, which functions like a city council. Muriel Bowser is mayor. 

The government of Washington can establish legal codes, which function like state laws and regulations. These laws cover everything from liquor and gun control to unemployment compensation to food and drug inspection. Washington operates its own police force and public school system. It also has its own separate court system, including an attorney general (currently Karl Racine). 

But home rule comes with an asterisk. Congress still has oversight, which means that the federal government can invalidate or veto any law passed by the DC Council.

Does Washington have representation in Congress?

Washington sends what's called a nonvoting delegate to the House of Representatives. Eleanor Holmes Norton has served in this position since 1991. The position lets Norton serve on House committees and speak on the House floor. She may sponsor legislation. But she's not able to vote. 

Washington has no representation in the Senate. This means district residents, who pay some of the highest rates of federal tax, have no say in federally appointed positions, such as the president's cabinet or those serving as US ambassadors to foreign countries. It also means Washington residents have no voice in the confirmation of judges to the federal bench, or in the confirmation process for justices to the US Supreme Court. 

Does Washington vote for US president? 

Yes. Since 1961, when the 23rd Amendment to the US Constitution was adopted, Washington has had three electoral votes for president and vice president. 

What are the arguments in favor of statehood for Washington?  

The biggest issue is that for the more than 700,000 residents of the district, there's taxation without representation. Washington residents pay more in total federal income tax than residents of 22 other states, but they have no say in how those tax dollars are spent. 

Additionally, unlike states, Washington has no autonomy from the federal government. Congress has the ability to nullify laws and regulations. And it can even modify and review Washington's budget. The federal government also has control over Washington's court system. 

How would the legislation create a Washington DC state? 

The companion bills carve out a two-mile radius that defines what would be called the National Capital Service Area, which includes federal buildings and other areas, such as the White House, Capitol, Supreme Court and the National Mall. This becomes the seat of the federal government as defined in the Constitution. 

The rest of Washington, made up of the parts of the city where people actually live, would then become the 51st state, called "Douglass Commonwealth." This would allow the new state to keep its DC abbreviation and also pay homage to Frederick Douglass, the social reformer and abolitionist. Based on its population, the new state would get one representative in the House, and two senators. 

The mayor of Washington would get the new title of governor. And the District Council would function as a state legislative body. Washington would be granted the same rights as any other state. This means the governor would have the ability to activate the National Guard in an emergency. 

Is there a precedent for 'shrinking' the federal district?

Yes. Alexandria County, which sits across the Potomac River from the district, was originally part of Washington. But in 1846, Alexandria residents looking to protect a major slave trade market petitioned Congress to "retrocede" from the district and return to the Commonwealth of Virginia. 

Has Congress ever voted on statehood for Washington?

Yes. Legislation for Washington statehood has been introduced for decades. In 1993, a bill finally made it out of committee in the House of Representatives. It went to the House floor for a vote, but it was defeated by a 277-153 count. 

Legislation was introduced in 2020 and passed the Democrat-dominated House by a vote of 232-180. It was the first time that a chamber of Congress had passed such legislation. Democrats again voted in favor of DC statehood in the current Congress with a vote of 216 to 208.

The bill that passed the House in 2020 stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate, where then-Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refused to bring it for a vote. The Senate has never voted on a Washington statehood bill. But with Democrats now controlling the chamber, the bill is at least expected to get a vote in the Senate.

Where do things stand now?

Holmes reintroduced the Washington statehood bill in January, and Carper introduced it in the Senate. The House passed the bill on April 22, 2021. But the Senate must also pass it, which could be tough given that Democrats only slightly control the Senate.

One big thing that's changed between 1993 and now is that most Democrats, including Biden, are in favor of Washington becoming the 51st state.

But the legislation faces an uphill battle in the Senate, where Republicans still control 50 votes. Even though Democrats can get to a simple majority with Harris, who supports statehood for Washington, offering a tie-breaking vote, this bill would need a 60-vote majority to overcome an expected Republican filibuster.  

What are the politics of Washington DC statehood?

Democrats' support for statehood has grown over the years. But Republicans, including McConnell, now the minority leader, are strongly opposed. 

The Democrats' support of statehood and the Republicans' opposition aren't surprising given the political realities. Washington, a primarily minority city, votes overwhelmingly Democrat. This means that the additional seat in the House and the two seats in the Senate would likely go to Democrats, tipping the balance of power in the Senate. 

What are the arguments against statehood for Washington?

Some strict constitutional scholars argue that Washington statehood goes against the intent of the founding fathers, who wouldn't have advocated for a small federal district surrounded by a tiny state. There are also questions about how to deal with the 23rd Amendment, which gives Washington its three electoral college votes.

Republicans say the only path toward statehood should come through a constitutional amendment, which would require ratification from the states. 

What about making Washington part of Maryland or Virginia?

Some people argue that Washington is too small to be a state. That's in spite of the fact that it's more populous than states such as Wyoming and Vermont, and just barely has fewer residents than Alaska. 

Some Republicans have pushed for Washington to become a part of Virginia or Maryland. But those proposals haven't gone anywhere.

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