WASHINGTON -- Faced with a Democratic White House that favors statehood for the District of Columbia, Republican lawmakers are ready with an alternative: Return the bulk of the nation's capital to Maryland.
"I probably would introduce an amendment that would have a significant portion of the District of Columbia . . . reunited with Maryland," said Sen. Don Nickles, an Oklahoma Republican and chairman of the Republican Policy Committee.
The proposal is a long shot, since it would require approval of the Maryland General Assembly, where there appears to be little interest in a District-Maryland merge.
One top state Senate aide said there was a "zero" chance the legislature would support absorbing Washington, pointing to the state's fiscal troubles and the District's money and crime woes.
Meanwhile, Gov. William Donald Schaefer has said he would welcome the inclusion of the District of Columbia into Maryland -- as long as D.C. residents approve, said Page Boinest, the governor's press secretary. But that, too, is unlikely, since the District residents backed statehood by a 3-2 margin in a 1980 initiative and elected a statehood delegation to lobby on behalf of New Columbia two years ago.
Still, even if Washington, D.C., is not absorbed into Maryland, the debate over whether the District of Columbia should become the state of New Columbia is of keen interest to Maryland and Virginia residents who work in Washington. They could receive an unwelcome greeting from the 51st state: a commuter tax.
District officials, noting that candidate Bill Clinton backed statehood last year in congressional testimony, are hopeful that President Clinton can offer the key support for final passage in the 103rd Congress that convenes in January.
"The failure to grant statehood to the men and women of the District of Columbia undercuts America's greatest promise -- that the power flows from the people and not the other way around," Mr. Clinton said while campaigning this year.
President Bush and many Republicans are opposed to District statehood for a variety of reasons, not the least of them being that the Democratic stronghold would unquestionably produce two new Democratic U.S. senators.
"That would be part of it," conceded Mr. Nickles. "But I'm not sure any city should have two senators either. You're talking about one city having a tremendous amount of influence out of proportion with the rest of the country."
In the 1780s, Maryland donated land east of the Potomac River to create the new federal city, while Virginia ceded property west of the river. Virginia got its land back in 1846.
Mr. Nickles said his proposal would return most of the city, with the exception of a federal enclave that includes Capitol Hill, the White House, monuments and federal agencies. He would tack on that amendment when the D.C. statehood measure, slated to be reintroduced in both houses early next year, comes up for a vote.
Supporters of the statehood measure argue that District residents have only a non-voting delegate in the House and no vote in the Senate, even though the city has more than 600,000 residents, a population larger than three states: Wyoming, Alaska and Vermont. And District residents pay a higher total in federal taxes than the residents in nine states.
While the city has a mayor and City Council, its spending bills and other legislation must receive final approval from the federal government. (Federal payments to the District total $625 million, or roughly 19 percent of its $3.2 billion budget).
But Mr. Nickles countered that District residents could receive representation by becoming part of Maryland, a suggestion rejected by the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson two years ago when a variation on that theme was offered by former Rep. Stan Parris, a Virginia Republican.
Mr. Jackson, elected by the District as a shadow senator to promote statehood, called the Parris measure a "Bantustan concept," a reference to the South African form of racial segregation through "homelands."
Mr. Nickles, however, said Congress did not have the sole authority to grant D.C. statehood. Since the nation's capital was created by the U.S. Constitution, a constitutional amendment would be needed. Such an amendment requires a two-thirds passage by Congress and ratification by two-thirds of the states.
Sen. Paul Simon, an Illinois Democrat and key sponsor of the statehood measure, has said that the Constitution in Article 1 provides only for a federal city not to exceed 10 square miles outside of the boundaries of any state. The Constitution specifies no minimum area and a bill that grants statehood while leaving a federal enclave would meet the constitutional requirements.
Despite Mr. Clinton's support, there is uncertainty about the chances for D.C. statehood in Congress. There are 18 supporters for the Senate measure, including Maryland's Democratic Sens. Paul S. Sarbanes and Barbara A. Mikulski.
In the House, an aide to Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District's non-voting delegate and the person who introduced the House measure, said support of statehood was used during the campaign "like a Willie Horton issue." Ms. Norton's office declined to provide a list of co-sponsors.
Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell said that while he backed statehood, he was uncertain about its chances of passage. "We don't know what's going to happen next year," Mr. Mitchell said last week. "But I favor it, I'm pleased that Gov. Clinton favors it, and I hope that it can become a reality."
There are also fiscal concerns for Virginia and Maryland. In her argument for statehood, Ms. Norton noted that Washington, D.C., loses $1.2 billion each year because Congress prohibits it from taxing the income earned in the District by non-residents.