By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 17, 2007
The White House declared its opposition yesterday to a bill that would give the District its first full seat in the House of Representatives, saying it is unconstitutional, and a key Senate supporter said such concerns could kill the measure.
"The Constitution specifies that only 'the people of the several states' elect representatives to the House," said White House spokesman Alex Conant. "And D.C. is not a state."
He declined to say whether President Bush would veto the bill, but the White House appeared to be sending a message to Congress just as momentum for the measure was building. It cleared two House committees this week, and the Democratic leadership has vowed to pass it on the House floor next week.
The bill seeks to increase the House permanently to 437 seats, from 435. In a bipartisan compromise, one seat would go to the overwhelmingly Democratic District, which has a nonvoting delegate in the House. The other would go to the next state in line to pick up a seat based on the 2000 Census: Utah, which leans Republican.
Several Republican House members assailed the bill this week, noting that the Constitution reserves representation for residents of states, not districts. Supporters countered with a section of the Constitution known as the "District Clause," which gives Congress sweeping powers over the city. Legal scholars have disagreed over who is right.
The bill's advocates knew that the White House had constitutional concerns. But Conant said the White House hadn't formally opposed the bill until it had cleared the Judiciary Committee on Thursday and was headed for the House floor. "We had not taken a position until after the committee vote," he said.
Bush has not commented directly on whether he thinks the District should have a vote in Congress. In December, he said that he would "look carefully" at whatever Congress proposes.
Asked about the prospects of a veto, Conant said: "We'll have to wait and see what happens to the legislation. But the White House does oppose the bill."
Supporters of the measure have anticipated a difficult fight in the Senate, where few Republicans have embraced it. The bill's sponsors, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) and Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), have pinned their hopes on the Republican senators from Utah, believing they could persuade colleagues to pass it.
But both Utah senators indicated yesterday that the bill could be in trouble. A spokeswoman for Sen. Robert F. Bennett (R) said he continues to support it. However, "based on the constitutional concerns raised by the White House and others in Congress, it may be difficult to get the 60 votes to move this bill," said the spokeswoman, Emily Christensen, referring to the threshold necessary to avoid a filibuster.
A spokesman for the senior Utah senator, Orrin G. Hatch (R), said he was traveling and unavailable to respond to the White House statement. But the spokesman, Peter Carr, said the senator is unhappy with another part of the bill, which would make the extra Utah seat "at large" until the 2012 reapportionment after the next census.
"He does have serious concerns about the constitutionality of an at-large seat," Carr said.
House Democrats had insisted the Utah seat be at large to avoid a redistricting process that could hurt the lone Democratic member of the state's three-member House delegation.
The flurry of statements appeared to indicate a darkening future for the vote bill. But supporters said they were still hopeful that it could pass.
Davis, who crafted the legislation, said Bush had signed bills in the past that had raised constitutional questions, including a ban on what abortion opponents call "partial-birth" abortion, which is being examined by the Supreme Court. With the voting bill, too, Bush could ultimately chose to "err on the side of letting the courts decide," Davis said.
He also pointed out that prominent Republican lawyers, including Kenneth W. Starr, a former federal appellate judge and onetime independent counsel, and Viet D. Dinh, a former assistant attorney general, had analyzed the D.C. vote bill and deemed it constitutional.
"I'm hopeful that when this gets to the president, he will follow the writings of Judge Starr and Viet Dinh, who he relied on to write the Patriot Act," Davis said.
Norton also noted the support of the former top government attorneys. "With District residents among the troops on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan, and other residents here paying taxes to support our government, it is unthinkable that this or any president would cast one of his few vetoes to deny our citizens representation," she said in a statement.
D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) said in a statement that he still hopes the measure will quickly pass the House and Senate and be signed into law by the president.
"We will continue to do all we can to make sure that happens," he said.
Staff writer David Nakamura contributed to this report.