WASHINGTON — The Biden administration has quietly approached congressional Democrats about a potential change to their high-profile but long-shot effort to transform most of the District of Columbia into the nation’s 51st state, according to executive and legislative branch officials.
The bill, which passed the House last month but faces steep odds in the Senate, would admit the residential and commercial areas of the District of Columbia as a new state and leave behind a rump federal enclave encompassing the seat of government, including the Capitol, White House, Supreme Court, other federal buildings and monuments.
The deliberations center on the Constitution’s 23rd Amendment, which gives three Electoral College votes to the district in presidential elections. If it is not repealed after any statehood, the bill would try to block the appointment of the three presidential electors. But the administration is said to have proposed instead giving them to the winner of the popular vote.
Officials familiar with the discussion spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing the political delicacy of the matter at a time when Republicans have been raising legal and policy objections to granting statehood to the District of Columbia’s 700,000 residents. Such a step would create two additional Senate seats that Democrats would most likely win, as well as grant a vote to the lone representative in the House.
policy statement. But a little-noticed line also hinted that part of the legislation, known as H.R. 51, had given President Biden’s legal team pause.
“The administration looks forward to working with the Congress as H.R. 51 proceeds through the legislative process to ensure that it comports with Congress’ constitutional responsibilities and its constitutional authority to admit new states to the Union by legislation,” it said.
If political conditions ever shift enough that the Senate someday approves granting statehood to the District of Columbia — which would become the smallest state by land area, though its population exceeds Vermont and Wyoming — Republican-controlled states are widely expected to sue to challenge its constitutionality.
The Supreme Court might dismiss such a case on the grounds that it raises the sort of question that the politically elected branches must decide. In 1875, it rejected a case challenging the 1845 retrocession to Virginia of a former part of the district partly on such logic. But if the justices were to reach the legal merits, they would confront several novel issues.
amendment says the seat of the federal government “shall” appoint three presidential electors.
It is not clear how many, if any, potential voters would be left there. The only residence in the rump federal enclave would be the White House; presidential families traditionally choose to vote in their home states, but nothing forces them to do so. In theory, homeless people might also claim residency in the envisioned enclave.
As a fallback if the amendment is not swiftly repealed, the statehood bill would make two changes by statute: Legal residents of the enclave — if there are any — could vote by absentee ballot in their previous states, and legal procedures for appointing any electors would be rescinded.