Delegates Gain Limited Voting Rights

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, with D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, may act on amendments, but in some cases, her vote could be disregarded.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, with D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, may act on amendments, but in some cases, her vote could be disregarded. (By Dayna Smith For The Washington Post)
By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 25, 2007

The House gave D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton the right yesterday to vote on amendments to bills on the House floor, a privilege that legislators acknowledged is largely symbolic.

The action, pushed through by the new Democratic-led House, restores a right that Norton (D) and four other non-state representatives received in 1993. It was taken away two years later, after Republicans won control of the House.

Norton has been pushing for passage of a much broader bill that would give her a full vote. She supported the limited measure yesterday but expressed concern that it could slow the momentum toward giving the District a full vote by confusing activists and increasing tension with Republicans.

"This debate is extremely heartbreaking for me," Norton said in an impassioned floor speech, after Republicans assailed the rule change. She questioned why lawmakers were arguing about the constitutionality of the limited measure, when the courts had upheld it in the 1990s. She said Congress should instead be considering the broader bill, which supporters call their best hope in years of getting the District a full vote in the House.

Norton and Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) recently reintroduced that bill, which would add two seats to the House -- one for the overwhelmingly Democratic District and another for Utah, a Republican bastion. Until now, Norton has been able to vote only in House committees.

The rule change that was approved "offers so little for Americans who have given so much," Norton lamented.

The measure allows Norton and representatives from Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa and the Virgin Islands to vote in the Committee of the Whole, where amendments to legislation are considered.

But it comes with an important caveat: If the delegates' votes provide the margin of victory, their votes are thrown out and representatives revote without them.

The measure passed 226 to 191 on a party-line vote. Democratic supporters acknowledged that it provided mainly symbolic privileges but said it would give delegates greater participation in Congress.

"It is not enough what we do today," said Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), who has expressed strong support for the District having a full vote in the House. "But it would be tragic if we do not do this basic step."

Republicans attacked the measure, saying it was unconstitutional and a power grab by Democrats.

Rep. Patrick T. McHenry (R-N.C.) noted that four of the five non-state representatives who benefit from the rule change are Democrats.

"They want to cushion their numbers" in votes on amendments, he said during the debate.

Other Republicans expressed concern that the rule change was the first step toward offering full voting rights to the territories. And some suggested it would be used in legislative maneuvers to benefit Democrats.

Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.) noted that the last time the measure was in effect, the Democratic-controlled House had numerous revotes on amendments, though it was rare that the delegates affected the margin of victory. During the revotes, he said, representatives often changed sides.

"We're going to embark on another legal struggle, just as we did 14 years ago," to defeat the measure, he declared.

House Republicans filed suit in U.S. District Court in 1993, citing a violation of the Constitution. But Judge Harold H. Greene ruled in favor of Norton and the other delegates, saying their votes posed no constitutional problems because they were "symbolic" and therefore "meaningless." That decision was upheld on appeal.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company