ARLINGTON, VA - SEPTEMBER 26:  Aerial photo of the Washington Memorial with the Capitol in the background in Washington D.C. on September 26, 2003.  (Photo by Andy Dunaway/USAF via Getty Images)
Dem lawmaker: Here's why opposition to DC statehood is racist
06:43 - Source: CNN
Washington CNN  — 

A Senate committee hearing on a bill to grant statehood to Washington, DC, grew tense for a time on Tuesday when one of the panel’s Republican lawmakers clashed with the city’s mayor on the key Democratic priority, which has gained momentum in recent years.

Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin told DC Mayor Muriel Bowser, a Democrat, that the idea of making DC the 51st state “seems just like a naked power grab,” and argued statehood is unnecessary for the majority of DC residents because “in the end, people choose to live here” and “individuals who are within the District obviously have a vested interest in a very powerful federal government, which is counter to the power vested in the states.”

Bowser responded, “700,000 hardworking individuals who educate their children, start businesses and work in the District. … It would be incorrect to say that DC residents have more of an interest in the federal government than other Americans.”

The exchange came during a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing focused on S51, the Washington, D.C. Admission Act, two months after House Democrats passed that chamber’s version of the legislation, which would create the nation’s 51st state using most parts of the city. Parts of DC that are home to federal buildings like the White House, the US Capitol and the Supreme Court would become a “Federal District,” according to the bill.

Johnson, pressing the mayor on what he claimed is the different “administration of justice” for insurrectionists involved in the January 6 riot and the treatment of Black Lives Matter protesters who vandalized some businesses in the city during protests last summer, also asked: “Have you seen any information as to how much damage was done during the summer rioting?” When Bowser did not immediately address his question, the senator asked again about the treatment of protesters.

“If you’re asking about how the Federal Bureau of Investigation operates, you’ll have to address those questions to them,” Bowser replied, adding that DC does not “permit any riotous behavior, whoever is conducting it.”

Bowser had appeared before a House panel earlier this year to urge lawmakers to pass the statehood bill.

Tuesday’s hearing also featured testimony from a number of experts and advocates, including Marc Morial, the president and CEO of the National Urban League.

Support for the issue was also on display outside of the Capitol on Tuesday as DC Vote, a statehood advocacy group, held a rally near the building. The group said in a statement that more than a dozen noted supporters were set to speak at the event, including Democratic Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware, who introduced the Senate bill.

The hearing and eventual committee vote on S51 represent important steps toward establishing statehood – an issue that Democrats have pushed in recent years after taking control of the House in 2018 and the Senate and White House in 2020. The House version of the statehood bill first passed that chamber in 2020 but did not advance in the Senate, which was controlled by a Republican majority at the time.

Even with Democrats now controlling a narrow majority in the Senate, S51 faces an uphill fight there, where it is unlikely to get enough Republican support to clear a 60-vote threshold for passage.

Democrats have framed the issue of granting statehood to Washington – which voted for Joe Biden over then-President Donald Trump by 92%-5% in November – as an important step for equal representation and voting rights in the United States, while Republicans have argued that the legislation represents a partisan effort by Democrats to push a progressive agenda and tip the scales in Congress in their favor.

This story has been updated with details from the hearing.

CNN’s Clare Foran contributed to this report.