Republican Balks At Bill Provision

Adrian M. Fenty, left, and Mayor Anthony A. Williams were among those at the hearing.
Adrian M. Fenty, left, and Mayor Anthony A. Williams were among those at the hearing. "We're in a better place than we've been for a long time," Williams said. (By Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)
By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 15, 2006

A growing campaign to award the District a congressional representative with full voting rights hit a snag yesterday after a key Republican legislator proposed changes in the bill.

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), who had crafted the bill, said he still hoped it could become law during the congressional session that ends this year. But he acknowledged that its prospects are uncertain.

"That's the $64,000 question," he said during a break in a subcommittee hearing on the measure.

The bill was considered promising because it had support from members of both parties. It would add two extra seats to the House of Representatives: one for the District, which is overwhelmingly Democratic, and another for the state next in line to expand its congressional delegation based on census results.

That state is currently Utah, which gave President Bush his biggest margin of victory in the 2004 election.

Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), head of the House Judiciary Committee, has agreed to hold a vote on the bill. A Judiciary subcommittee met yesterday to examine whether the bill passed constitutional muster.

But on the eve of yesterday's subcommittee hearing, Sensenbrenner told D.C. officials he objected to a provision of the bill that would make Utah's extra seat an "at large" position. He suggested it should represent a regular congressional district, officials said.

The at-large provision was designed to mollify Democrats who feared that a redistricting could cost them the one congressional seat they now hold in Utah's three-member House delegation.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), a co-sponsor of the voting-rights bill, said angrily at yesterday's hearing that she had worked with Davis for four years to achieve a compromise that would be acceptable to both parties. Sensenbrenner's amendment, she declared, "would take the basis for that bipartisanship away."

Her concern was echoed by Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), whose district borders the District. During the hearing, he said the bill represented "a very delicate balance and compromise" and urged his colleagues "to not tamper" with it.

During a break in the hearing, Davis said he was trying to find solutions to the objection. He said he had talked to Utah's governor to get assurances that any redistricting would be fair.

And, by the end of the day, Norton also said she thought the objection could be overcome.

"We're trying to meet the concerns" expressed by Sensenbrenner, she said in an interview, declining to provide details.

Proponents of D.C. voting rights have followed the bill with mounting hopes. It was overwhelmingly approved by Davis's House Committee on Government Reform in May. If it clears Sensenbrenner's full Judiciary Committee, it would go to the full House for a vote. To become law, the Senate would also have to approve it.

Although there have been other congressional votes on the issue, past bills were long shots, advocates said.

Jeff Lundgren, a spokesman for Sensenbrenner, said he opposed an at-large seat for Utah because the provision would give each resident of that state more than one representative.

He said, however, that the Judiciary Committee chairman would support the voting-rights bill as long as the at-large provision was dropped. Previously, Sensenbrenner had not expressed an opinion on the legislation. To some, even his qualified approval represented progress.

Utah Gov. Jon M. Huntsman Jr. (R) testified on behalf of the bill, as did Adam Charnes, a former Justice Department official, who said it was constitutional. But two other experts warned of constitutional problems: John Fortier, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and Jonathan Turley, a professor at George Washington University Law School.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company