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The Fight For D.C. Statehood Returns To Capitol Hill

NOEL KING, HOST:

Should Washington, D.C., be the 51st state? U.S. lawmakers are considering it again. More than 700,000 people live in D.C. That's more than Vermont or Wyoming with respect to both of those states. But D.C. residents don't have representatives who can vote on their behalf in the House and in the Senate. Here's Mikaela Lefrak from member station WAMU.

MIKAELA LEFRAK, BYLINE: The U.S. House Oversight Committee will hold a hearing on H.R.51 today - the Washington, D.C., Admission Act. Eleanor Holmes Norton introduced the bill. She's D.C.'s delegate to Congress.

ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON: The United States is the only capital where the people who live in that capital don't have the same rights that everyone else has.

LEFRAK: Norton's job is essentially that of a U.S. representative, but she can't vote on final bills. If D.C. becomes a state, it would gain voting representatives and senators. Norton's been pushing for statehood since she won her seat 30 years ago. She didn't have much success at first, but in the last few years, the statehood cause has gained a lot of momentum. Advocates ran successful education campaigns to get people around the country on board.

HOLMES NORTON: Most residents of our country apparently did not know that the people who live in their own nation's capital don't have the same rights they have.

LEFRAK: It's also become an increasingly partisan issue. Washingtonians vote overwhelmingly Democrat, which is why most Democrats in Congress support statehood. Some Republicans, like Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, say the only way to keep the federal government safe is for D.C. to remain a district. Here he is last summer.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TOM COTTON: If most of Washington was under the control not of the federal government but of a left-wing politician like Muriel Bowser, should we risk the safety of our capital on such a gamble?

LEFRAK: But the statehood cause gained steam in January after the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol Building. At a press conference the next day, Bowser, D.C.'s mayor, said law enforcement's response could have been quicker if D.C. had control over its National Guard like states do. She called on the new Congress to act.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MURIEL BOWSER: I also want to make a few priorities clear that are very important to the district. First, we must get statehood on the president's desk within the first 100 days of the 117th Congress.

LEFRAK: And now that Democrats control the House, Senate and the White House, advocates say this could be their year. Today's hearing is expected to go smoothly. Norton's bill has a record number of co-sponsors, 215, and it'll likely sail through the House. After that, it's on to the Senate. Norton says that's where the trouble lies.

HOLMES NORTON: The Senate is a defunct body. Nothing gets through there.

LEFRAK: A statehood bill passed the House last year for the first time ever, but it never came to a vote in the Republican-controlled Senate. This year, her nemesis is the filibuster.

HOLMES NORTON: The filibuster is what is standing in the way not only of D.C. statehood but of the most vital legislation that we need in this country.

LEFRAK: Changing the filibuster rules would mean the statehood bill could get through the Senate with fewer than 60 yes votes. Last week, President Joe Biden endorsed the idea of rule changes around the filibuster for the first time. White House press secretary Jen Psaki says he's been influenced by his fellow 700,000-plus residents of D.C.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JEN PSAKI: And he believes they deserve representation. That's why he supports D.C. statehood.

LEFRAK: The question now is, will a statehood bill actually make it to his desk? For NPR News in Washington, I'm Mikaela Lefrak.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAMU THE FUDGEMUNK'S "THIS ADVICE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.