In a change in tactics, advocates are pushing for statehood to be included in a broader bill taking shape.
WASHINGTON — Hoping to capitalize on a Democratic push on voting rights, activists who support making the District of Columbia a state now say they want a stand-alone statehood measure added to a sweeping national election overhaul the Senate is beginning to consider.
Some backers of statehood say that they see the more comprehensive legislation as the most expedient route and that the current Democratic effort to protect minority voting rights would fall short if residents of the nation’s capital ultimately lacked representation.
“We believe that including D.C. statehood in S-1 offers the most viable path to enfranchising the 700,000 mostly Black and brown citizens of D.C.,” said Stasha M. Rhodes, a campaign director for the pro-statehood coalition 51 for 51, referring to the bill number of the Senate proposal. “We think it is our responsibility to ensure that D.C. statehood is not left out of the conversation.”
The call to include statehood in broad Democratic legislation that would institute fundamental changes in the nation’s conduct of elections and campaigns is a strategic shift for the activists. They had coalesced behind an independent measure that would make the District of Columbia the 51st state and entitle residents who pay federal taxes to voting representation in the House and Senate. The change in tactics is not endorsed by Senate backers of the legislation, who still see a separate statehood bill as the best approach for both statehood and the voting rights measure.
But the activists said they feared that the amount of political capital that would need to be expended to pass the so-called For the People measure over deep Republican resistance would leave little remaining to push the statehood bill. They want to make sure Congress acts while President Biden, a statehood supporter, is in the White House and Democrats hold majorities in the House and Senate.
It creates a delicate situation for Senate Democrats, more than 40 of whom are sponsoring the statehood measure. They support making the District of Columbia a state — creating a House seat and two Senate seats. But they see the voting rights bill as an extremely heavy lift and worry that trying to add statehood at this stage would be a significant complication for a measure they say is urgently needed before elections next year.
The voting rights bill endorses the concept of statehood with language that declares “there are no constitutional, historical, fiscal or economic reasons why the Americans who live in the District of Columbia should not be granted statehood,” but it does not go beyond that.
“If passed, the For the People Act will take the crucial first step of creating a congressional record in support of statehood, but more must be done, and we need to pass separate legislation,” said Senator Amy Klobuchar, Democrat of Minnesota and a statehood supporter, who, as chairwoman of the Rules Committee, is steering the voting rights measure in the Senate.
Democrats say the measure, which has already passed the House as H.R. 1, has been years in the making. To pass it in a form sought by Democrats is probably going to require weakening the filibuster to overcome Republicans and Democrats who at the moment do not agree on that step among themselves.
Statehood would provide another lightning rod for Republicans, who deride the idea as an unconstitutional power grab intended to entrench Democrats with the virtually certain election of two Democratic senators. Adding it to the voting rights bill would only intensify Republican opposition, if that is even possible.
“Why not throw Puerto Rico in, too, and pack the Supreme Court while you are at it?” asked Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, who said Republicans had dug in against the bill. “We are ready.”
The statehood measure has gained momentum on its own in recent days with a hearing in the House, where it has previously passed, along with additional Democratic endorsements in the Senate, bringing to 42 the number of backers of the measure sponsored by Senator Thomas R. Carper, Democrat of Delaware.
A spokesman for Mr. Carper said the senator remained “open-minded on pathways” but was trying to build bipartisan support for statehood on the basis of taxpayer fairness — an effort that would be hindered by adding the statehood bill to the voting rights measure hotly opposed by Republicans.
“At the end of the day, this is an issue about basic fairness and representation for D.C. residents, and I look forward to making the case to my colleagues on both sides of the aisle on why they need to take up the cause of our fellow citizens in D.C.,” Mr. Carper said in a statement.
The activists said they expected resistance to their new drive but intended to keep the pressure on lawmakers to tie the statehood legislation to the emerging Democratic bill. A new digital ad campaign paid for by the group 51 for 51 began this week with a six-figure investment in Minnesota. “For the People means for ALL the People, including 700,000+ Americans in D.C.,” the ad says. “Democracy reform must include D.C. statehood.”
Though they prefer combining the two, the activists say they will certainly continue to back both the statehood measure and the voting rights bill should they not succeed. But from their perspective, this is a moment to push them together.
“Folks are having a conversation about structural democracy in a real way,” said Maurice Mitchell, a leader of the Working Families Party. “We just think this is a critical juncture and would be a missed opportunity if they weren’t able to match that rhetoric with legislative action.”