GOP House Leaders Choose to Let Bill Die

By Mary Beth Sheridan and Yolanda Woodlee
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Republican congressional leaders decided yesterday not to bring to the floor a bill giving the District a full voting member of the House, dooming the measure's chances in this legislative session.

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), the bill's author, had appealed to his party's leadership to cram in a vote during Congress's lame-duck session, which could end as soon as Thursday. But in a closed-door meeting, House leaders rejected the request.

"There was a certain level of resistance because there were a number of constitutional concerns from members," said Kevin Madden, a spokesman for Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), the House majority leader. He did not elaborate.

The bill had faced long odds for approval this week, given the time constraints. Even if it got through the House, it would have needed to clear the Senate. But proponents had taken heart from the bipartisan support it had attracted. The bill would have balanced the new seat for the mostly Democratic District with an additional one for heavily Republican Utah.

D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) criticized lawmakers for not moving ahead this week. "I'm disappointed because District residents have waited long enough for basic voting rights, and we shouldn't have to wait one day longer," Williams said in a statement.

Questions about the bill's legal merits have persisted, as it worked its way through Congress this year. Some scholars have testified that the Constitution limits full membership in Congress to states; others have argued that Congress has the authority to treat the District as a state for the purposes of representation.

Davis, working with Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) and other voting-rights advocates, had built a wide-ranging coalition to support the bill, and had won the backing of some prominent legal scholars. He and Norton expressed dismay at the decision.

"It's tough to take after we, along with D.C. residents, had created so much momentum for this bipartisan bill," Davis and Norton said in a statement. "We got it farther than anyone anticipated."

They pledged to reintroduce the bill "as our first order of business in the 110th Congress."

Norton has represented the city in the House for eight terms, introducing legislation and serving on committees. But she is not allowed to vote on the floor. Advocates have sought to give the District a vote in Congress for decades, and backers are not giving up.

Some supporters are optimistic that it can win approval next year when Democrats take control of Congress. The House speaker-elect, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), is a co-sponsor of the measure, and Democrats have generally been more amenable to the issue.

In his statement, Williams said he hoped that the new Congress will revisit the issue next month.

Mayor-elect Adrian M. Fenty, who met with Norton and Pelosi last week, echoed that view. "I look forward to working with all stakeholders to ensure passage of the bill and enfranchisement for District residents," he said.

But Ilir Zherka, executive director of DC Vote, an advocacy group that had been promoting the bill, said he worries that lawmakers will be too busy with budget bills and other priorities to consider the measure early in 2007.

"We're very skeptical about what might happen next year," he said.

District officials were jubilant after the voting measure was approved last May by the House Committee on Government Reform, chaired by Davis. The bill then moved to the Judiciary Committee, where it was held up over its plan to make Utah's new seat at-large, an arrangement some legislators considered unconstitutional.

To resolve that concern, the Utah legislature met in special session Monday to approve a redistricting map that would include a fourth congressional seat for the state. But the move came too late to propel the bill to a full House vote.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company