D.C. ponders bid to become 51st state

After nearly 200 years, 1,214-square-mile Rhode Island's distinction of being the nation's smallest state may be in jeopardy.

Much could depend on the fruits of a historic three-month-long convention now taking place 350 miles southwest of Washington, D.C.

The 45 delegates, elected last November by residents of the nation's capital city, are shaping a document that could help turn their tiny 67-square-mile federal district into America's 51st state.

The team, made up of blacks and whites, men and women, professionals and blue-collar workers, is working on a blueprint for establishing what would be America's most urban state in the shadow of the White House and Capitol Hill.

But even if the constitution-drafting process is successful, statehood is not assured.

The statehood measure, expected to be completed by late May, first will have to win approval of District of Columbia voters on next fall's municipal ballot. Then it must clear both chambers of Congress, where suggestions of more independence for the District of Columbia never have generated much enthusiasm.

Backers of the statehood push, however, were encouraged by the 1978 passage in Congress of a D.C. voting rights constitutional amendment. The amendment, which still must be ratified by three-fourths of the state legislatures, would allow D.C. two US senators and at least one congressman to represent it in Congress. Currently, the district has only one nonvoting delegate in the House.

But more than 3 1/2 years later, only 10 of the 38 required state legislatures have ratified the proposed amendment. Although its backers are outwardly determined, they reluctantly concede that a lot more progress is needed quickly if their goal is to be met before the August 1985 ratification deadline.

Backers of full statehood for the district say the present consitutional amendment does not go far enough. It does nothing beyond provide the 635,222 residents with representation in federal lawmaking chambers, they point out.

Unlike the voting rights amendment, the move to win statehood for the D.C. does not involve changing the US Constitution. As in the case of all other states entering the union since the original 13, only congressional approval is required.

Statehood boosters, like D.C. Councilwoman Hilda Mason, view the current effort toward that end as necessary for District of Columbia citizens to achieve full political equality with US citizens in the 50 states.

Citizens of the nation's capital first won the right to vote for president in 1964. Seven years later this was extended to the choice of a nonvoting representative in Congress. Since 1974, D.C. residents have elected municipal officials, including a mayor.

Upon becoming a state, D.C. would not only gain two seats in the US Senate and at least one seat in the House. Also provided would be considerably greater home rule: Elected state officials would be able to levy taxes, pass laws, and appropriate funds without congressional approval.

Although less than one-18th the size of Rhode Island, the proposed new state would be more populous than four states -- Alaska, Wyoming, Vermont, and Delaware.

The new state would embrace all the city except for a small federal enclave where government buildings are located.

Blacks make up about 71 percent of the population of the heavily Democratic District of Columbia, split off from neighboring Maryland in 1800 by Congress. D.C. citizens have voted heavily Democratic in the past, and many Republicans and conservatives are concerned that statehood will bring more liberal Democrats into Congress.

Although once unenthusiatic about statehood, backers of the D.C. voting rights amendment now say they are neutral.

''We are neither opposing nor supporting it,'' says Kurt Vorndran, executive director of the Self Determination for D.C. Coalition, whose members include the League of Women Voters, Common Cause, the American Civil Liberties Union, and other groups.

Last year only Oregon ratified the D.C. voting rights amendment. This year action is being pushed in several states, including Alaska, California, and Delaware.

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