WASHINGTON — Congress is dusting off the notion of statehood for the District of Columbia for the first time in 21 years, but that doesn't mean residents of the nation's capital are any closer to gaining representation on Capitol Hill.
District leaders submitted glowing testimony in support of transforming most of the nation's capital into the "state of New Columbia" at a hearing Monday afternoon. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid supports statehood for the District, and President Barack Obama said recently, "I'm for it."
The Homeland Security Committee chairman who called the hearing, Democratic Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware, has secured 18 Senate co-sponsors for the bill. But he doesn't appear to have enough support from Democrats on his own committee to bring the bill to the Senate floor for a vote, and no further action on the bill is planned.
"My goal for this hearing is to educate a new generation of people about this injustice and restart the conversation about finding a more thoughtful solution," Carper said.
Some Democrats who haven't signed on are running for re-election in swing states, including Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas. In a political climate when coziness with Washington can lead to political defeat, vulnerable Democrats may not want to speak out on the statehood issue.
In the Republican-led House, the issue is a non-starter. GOP statehood opponents often point out that the nation's founders preferred keeping the nation's capital as a federal district. But there's also an unavoidable political reality: Three out of four registered voters in the District are Democrats, while Republican registration languishes at 6 percent. Republicans aren't likely to hand Democrats two new senators and an additional seat in the House.
"Here we are again debating this issue even though it has no chance of success in this chamber and is dead on arrival in the House," said Sen. Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican, who added that a constitutional amendment would be necessary to correct the "injustice" of the lack of representation for District residents.
Despite such opposition, District boosters said the hearing was a positive step and that the city is in a strong position to push for statehood. The fast-growing District has 646,000 residents — more than Vermont or Wyoming — a booming economy and a municipal government that, while still plagued by corruption, has delivered nearly 20 years of balanced budgets.
The effort to give the District full representation in Congress has moved in fits and starts over past four decades. In 1978, Congress approved a constitutional amendment, but it was ratified by only 16 states.
The last time a statehood bill came up for a vote was 1993, when it was defeated in the House, and momentum for the issue stalled. Since then, Washington has enjoyed population growth, plummeting crime and surging property values.
Twenty years ago, "the city was in shambles, and people's attention was diverted to making the city work and be functional," statehood activist Josh Burch said. "This is a starting point, which we didn't have in 1993. I think we have a really good case to make right now."
The bill would shrink Washington, D.C., to a small federal district including the White House, the Capitol, the Supreme Court and the National Mall. Opponents raised constitutional concerns about such a small federal enclave surrounded entirely by a single state.
Burch believes District leaders should try to engage Republicans, in part by pointing out that as a state, the District would trim the federal budget by paying for its own courts and prisons.
"At its heart, people understand that our status is fundamentally wrong and fundamentally contrary to the founding principles of our country," he said.
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