As lawmakers in the House of Representatives prepared to vote for a second time to make Washington DC the nation’s 51st state, Democratic congressman Mondaire Jones fired back at Republicans who have criticised the effort.
“I have had enough of my colleagues’ racist insinuations that somehow the people of Washington DC are incapable or unworthy of our democracy,” the New York lawmaker told the House of Representatives on Thursday.
The full House voted 216-208 on the symbolically titled HR 51 in a party-line vote to send the measure to the Senate, where the long-gestating proposal will receive its first-ever floor hearing in a bid to provide equal citizenship and full representation for residents in the shadow of Congress and the White House.
It faces roadblocks in the Senate, where it must overcome the filibuster to bypass overwhelming Republican opposition.
Mr Jones objected to remarks from Republican Senator Tom Cotton who said statehood would prevent the nation’s capital from being a “well-rounded working class state”.
“I had no idea there were so many syllables in the word ‘white’,” said Mr Jones, who is Black.
He also shot back at US Rep Jody Hice, who said DC would be the only state “without an airport, without a car dealership, without a capital city and without a landfill” in his argument against statehood.
“With all the racist trash my colleagues have brought to this debate. I can see why my colleagues are worried about a place to put it,” Mr Jones said.
House Republicans erupted at his remarks before he added that there is “no good argument to disenfranchise 700,000 people in city, most of whom are people of colour.”
During a press briefing on Thursday morning, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi defended passage of a White House-backed measure to incorporate DC as a state, adding that “these residents pay taxes, fight in our wars, power our economy, yet do not have a full voice in our democracy.”
Mr Jones said Republicans’ “desperate objections are about fear”.
“Fear that their white supremacist politics will no longer play in the District,” he added. “Fear that their white supremacist arguments won’t work across the country anyway. Fear that if they don’t rig our democracy, they won’t win.”
In a statement, the White House said DC residents have been subject to “taxation without representation and denial of self-governance is an affront to the democratic values on which our nation was founded.”
“Establishing the State of Washington, Douglass Commonwealth as the 51st state will make our Union stronger and more just,” the statement said. “Washington DC has a robust economy, a rich culture, and a diverse population of Americans from all walks of life who are entitled to full and equal participation in our democracy.”
The city has roughly 712,000 residents, on par with Delaware and Alaska, and more than Vermont and Wyoming, though all those states have two senators each, in addition to proportionally allocated congressmembers in the House.
DC has no senators and one non-voting congressional delegate.
The proposal would shrink the federal district to a two-mile corridor with the White House and the Capitol, while the rest of the city would incorporate into the State Washington, Douglass Commonwealth, in recognition of abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
Democrats and advocates for statehood have organised around the issue as a racial justice and civil rights cause, echoing arguments around renewing voting rights that have disproportionately restricted voters of colour from the ballot.
Republicans have rejected those arguments, instead suggesting that Democrats are orchestrating a power grab to retain control of Congress, with a voting population in DC that is likely to send Democratic candidates to the Capitol. they also have said it would dilute.
In a widely criticised memo issued this week, House Minority Whip Steve Scalise called the measure unconstitutional and called into question the city’s finances and crime rates. Mr Scalise represents Louisiana, which has the fifth-highest crime rate in the nation.
“Democrats’ partisan push for DC statehood is irresponsible and represents exactly what the Founding Fathers sought to guard against when establishing the seat of the federal government,” he wrote.
Other Republicans argued that enfranchisement in DC would “dilute” the power of smaller-population states, which Montana Senator Steve Daines said, while others have suggested incorporating DC into neighbouring Maryland instead.
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