The 51st state? US House votes on Washington DC statehood


Washington (AFP)

US House Democrats will make history Friday by voting for Washington DC to become the nation's 51st state, but the move, a push for voting rights for the capital's residents, is doomed in the Senate.

More than 705,000 Americans live in Washington, a Democratic stronghold with a population greater than two states, Wyoming and Vermont, and comparable to two others.

But the capital's residents -- who pay taxes, serve in the military, operate businesses and service the buildings of the federal government -- have not had a voting voice in Congress since the permanent capital's founding, in 1790.

Democratic lawmakers frame the DC statehood bill, which is expected to pass, as a remedy to a historic injustice of voter disenfranchisement, and a longstanding civil rights issue for a city that is nearly 50 percent black.

"We think it's very long overdue that residents of the District of Columbia, all good Americans, should have a vote in the House and in the Senate," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said ahead of the vote.

The milestone statehood vote is the first in Congress since 1993. Never has such a bill -- appropriately titled HR-51 -- cleared the House or Senate.

"Congress has two choices: it can continue to exercise undemocratic autocratic authority over" Washington, "or Congress can live up to this nation's promise and ideals and pass HR51," said the city's non-voting House delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton.

Republicans who oppose the effort say it runs counter to the intent of the framers of the US Constitution who sought to create a unique federal district not influenced by any state.

"Washington DC was set apart as a seat of government, not as a part of the federation of states that the constitution grants us," Republican Jody Hice said on the House floor.

In an example of unwelcome federal intervention, President Donald Trump sent federal forces to clear out protesters near the White House earlier this month without coordinating with Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser.

- Success unlikely -

Maryland and Virginia ceded land in the 1780s for the creation of a federal capital along the Potomac River. Washington, District of Columbia, became the permanent US capital in 1790.

The district returned the land south of the Potomac to Virginia in 1846.

But unlike other American citizens, Washington residents have never had voting representatives in Congress, leading the city to print the famous, colonial-era battle cry, "Taxation without representation," on its vehicle license plates.

The new state would be known as Washington, Douglass Commonwealth, taking the names of the nation's first president George Washington and prominent black abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

House Republican Mo Brooks likened the statehood effort to a power grab by Democrats seeking "two more guaranteed left-wing senators."

He and other Republicans float the concept known as "retrocession," in which Washington would return its residential land to Maryland, which would allow city residents to vote for senators and have a voice in Congress.

A small federal district encompassing government buildings, Congress, monuments and the White House would remain.

The push for Washington statehood is highly unlikely to succeed for now. Trump has expressed opposition, and the Republicans who control the Senate have said they have no intention to bring it to a vote in the 100-member chamber.

The last time states joined the union was 1959, when Alaska was admitted as the 49th state on January 3 and Hawaii became the 50th state seven months later.