House Panel Endorses D.C. Vote

By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 19, 2006

A congressional committee overwhelmingly approved a bill yesterday that would grant the District a permanent, full voting member of the House of Representatives and add another legislator from Utah.

The House Committee on Government Reform voted 29 to 4 in favor of the proposal sponsored by its chairman, Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.). The measure now goes to the House Judiciary Committee, whose chairman has agreed to bring it up for a vote.

Davis expressed cautious optimism, saying, "This is momentum." But he acknowledged that there was no guarantee that the polarized Judiciary Committee would pass the bill. If it does, the measure could advance to the full House, then the Senate.

"We've got a lot of people working on this," Davis said. "We take one hurdle at a time."

Proponents of D.C. voting rights were jubilant about the vote, which they called the most promising legislative action on the subject in decades. While there have been other congressional votes on the issue -- including a resounding defeat of D.C. statehood by the full House in 1993 -- the past bills had little chance of victory, advocates said.

"This was a really bipartisan effort. And I think that's what makes it different," said D.C. Council member Carol Schwartz (R-At Large), one of dozens of D.C. vote supporters who filled the chamber.

The Davis bill is aimed at forging a compromise between two groups: advocates of statehood for the heavily Democratic District, including Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), and Republicans, who don't want to give up a seat in Congress to their opponents.

Norton and D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) issued statements hailing the vote. Norton called it a large and "historic" step, and Williams said it showed that Democrats and Republicans can agree that it is "undemocratic" for the District not to have a full vote in Congress.

The measure would permanently expand the House from 435 to 437 members, adding one seat each for the District and for the state next in line to expand its congressional delegation based on census results. Currently that state is Utah, which gave President Bush his largest margin of victory in the 2004 election.

"The reason we've reached consensus is because this plan is partisan-neutral," Davis told the committee meeting.

However, all four votes against his measure were from Republicans, including Candice S. Miller (Mich.) who said in a brief speech: "I think this is counter to the Constitution." The other no votes came from John M. McHugh (N.Y.), Patrick T. McHenry (N.C.) and Jean Schmidt (Ohio).

Overall, 14 of the Republicans present voted for the measure, as did 15 Democrats. All the committee members from the D.C area approved the bill -- Davis, Norton and three Maryland Democrats, Elijah E. Cummings, Chris Van Hollen and C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger.

In a highly unusual move, one legislator who initially gave a speech denouncing the bill as unconstitutional wound up changing his mind after he conferred outside the room with former GOP congressmen Jack Kemp, who is working with Davis on the issue.

In announcing his turnabout, Dan Burton (R-Ind.) declared: "I'd like to say we should support this as a civil rights step."

Davis said he thought the legislation could be approved by the full Congress this year. But congressional aides, speaking on condition of anonymity, were more cautious.

They noted that the Judiciary Committee is busy with other issues and might need time to analyze changes Davis recently made to his bill. In particular, to gain Democratic support, Davis agreed that the extra House seat going to Utah would be at-large, to avoid redrawing a district held by a Democrat.

One aide to the House Republican leadership said Davis and his allies also had to convince some legislators that the bill should be treated as a priority. Still, the aide said, "If this is a marathon, they've got the first couple miles done."

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