Washington — House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat, said Thursday that he wants to see the District become the 51st state, reversing his long-held opposition to D.C. statehood.
“Statehood would provide those in our nation’s capital with the best chance of attaining what residents of every other national capital in our fellow democracies enjoy: full representation in their national legislature,” he wrote in an op-ed in The Washington Post.
“Americans in the District have been denied not only a member with full voting rights in the House of Representatives but also two U.S. senators — simply because of where they live,” Hoyer wrote. “This continues even while the District is larger in population than two states and comparable to two others.”
The about-face came hours before the District’s top elected officials and advocates gathered at the D.C. War Memorial to cheer their latest victory: Congress will hold a July 24 hearing on statehood — the first in a quarter-century.
Mayor Muriel E. Bowser, a Democrat, noted that the District has sent 200,000 people to wars, throughout history, but those veterans had no vote in Congress.
“We are denied a vote on whether we should be going to war in the first place,” Bowser said. “It is a stain on our democracy.”
The hearing before the House Oversight and Reform Committee will focus on legislation filed by Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s nonvoting representative, to give the District all the rights of the 50 states — including two U.S. senators and, to start, one House member with full voting rights.
Activists hope the hearing will help them capitalize on recent momentum for statehood, which has gathered near-unanimous backing from Democrats running for president and, with the support from Hoyer, from Democratic legislative leaders.
“The reason that is important — besides the fact he is such a friend of the District and always has been — is he is the man that we go through to get our bills on the floor of the House of Representatives,” Norton said about Hoyer’s support. “We have never been at this place before.”
Hoyer had been the last Democratic federal lawmaker in the capital region to oppose full statehood for the District, after Sen. Mark R. Warner of Virginia announced his support for the move in February.
With Democrats in control of the House, statehood advocates are confident the bill, which has 205 sponsors, will pass in the House. But it is unlikely to gain traction in the GOP-controlled Senate.
A new advocacy group is trying to change Senate rules to allow statehood legislation to advance with a simple majority, rather than 60 votes to overcome the filibuster.
“If 51 votes is enough to confirm a Supreme Court justice, it should be enough to get 700,000 residents full voting rights,” said Stasha Rhodes, the campaign manager for 51 for 51.
The group, which does not disclose its donors, plans to spend more than $1 million on a public education campaign in early presidential primary states and to pressure Democratic presidential contenders to support the Senate rule change for D.C. statehood legislation. So far, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee have signed on.
“It’s easy to say I support [statehood]; it’s another thing to say I want to support a real path to making sure it happens,” Rhodes said.
Hoyer previously supported full voting rights for the District but stopped short of believing it should be a state.
“Our founders, who prescribed the creation of a national capital not within the jurisdiction of any individual state, never intended for those living in it to be denied representation,” Hoyer wrote. “Defending the new Constitution, James Madison assured his fellow Americans that residents of this new capital district would happily live there ‘as they will have had their voice in the election of the government which is to exercise authority over them.’ For 228 years, our government has denied them that voice.”
At the time, he said it would be too complicated to delineate state responsibilities from federal responsibilities if Congress were to create a state from most of what is currently the District of Columbia, as Norton’s bill prescribes.
The second highest-ranking House Democrat, after Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, Hoyer said if the statehood bill is passed by committee, he will bring it to the House floor for a vote.
Maryland and Virginia residents have also expressed concern that if the District achieves statehood, it could impose a commuter tax on suburbanites who work in the nation’s capital.
In 2016, 86 percent of voters in the District cast ballots in favor of statehood.