By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 23, 2007
Republicans yesterday derailed a vote on a bill giving the District its first full seat in the House of Representatives by trying to tie the legislation to a drastic weakening of the city's gun-control laws.
The surprise development came as the Democratic-dominated House appeared on the verge of passing the measure. Many D.C. vote activists had gathered at the Capitol for what they hoped would be a historic day -- the first time in nearly 30 years the chamber would vote to give the District a full-fledged House representative.
But as more than three hours of debate drew to a close, Rep. Lamar S. Smith (R-Tex.) proposed sending the bill back to committee with additional language gutting the city's gun restrictions.
Democrats retreated, fearing that conservative, pro-gun members of their party could be tempted to side with Republicans. The majority party postponed further action to give voting-rights backers time to regroup.
The bill's supporters said they hope to return the D.C. vote legislation to the House floor in a matter of days -- but with rules that would prohibit such maneuvers.
"It's a motion to shoot the bill dead," Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), the District's non-voting congressional delegate, declared angrily on the House floor after Smith introduced his measure. "These people are trying to kill voting rights for the people of the District of Columbia."
The Republican maneuver reflected the party leadership's staunch opposition to the bill. During yesterday's floor debate, Republicans called the bill unconstitutional and accused Democrats of creating a precedent that could lead to two full senators from the District.
The voting-rights measure, sponsored by Norton and Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), is a compromise that would add two seats to the House, one for the heavily Democratic city and another for the state next in line to expand its delegation -- currently Republican-leaning Utah.
The opposition went into high gear during the past week. The White House said that if the bill reached President Bush, advisers would recommend a veto. Republican leaders also worked the House in recent days.
Norton and Davis said that Smith's motion caused turmoil because it tested Democrats from conservative areas where gun rights are popular. If they voted against the measure, "it makes a great TV ad" that critics could run in their home districts, Davis said.
If such Democrats helped pass the motion, though, it would send the voting rights bill back to committee, which could tie it up or even kill it.
Republicans protested the decision to delay any action.
"Fearing that many in their party would support Second Amendment rights for District residents, the Democratic leadership shamefully exploited a rule to kill debate and postpone the vote indefinitely," Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said in a statement.
Voting-rights supporters blasted the Republican move as a partisan stunt and sought to minimize its impact.
"Today, House Republicans have shown contempt for the half-a-million taxpaying citizens of Washington, D.C., who do not have representation in Congress -- contradicting the basic founding principles of our nation," Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), the House majority leader, said in a statement.
Democrats "are committed to addressing this issue as soon as possible," he said.
The voting bill easily cleared two House committees last week, and House Democrats have pledged to use their 32-seat majority to approve it on the full floor. It then would head to the Senate, where its prospects are uncertain.
Smith's efforts were the latest in a history of Republican maneuvers to repeal the District's gun restrictions, widely viewed as among the strictest in the country. Congress has considered such measures several times since 1999 but has yet to overturn the D.C. law. They have been opposed by the city's political leaders.
The language trumpeting the rights of gun owners comes at a time when the D.C. law is threatened on another front: A federal appellate court recently ruled that the law illegally bars residents from having handguns in homes. D.C. officials say they will appeal.
Smith's language would bar any attempt by the D.C. mayor or council to outlaw guns permitted under federal law. It would repeal the city's ban on semiautomatic rifles and remove criminal penalties for possessing unregistered guns.
Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) said yesterday that eviscerating the city's gun restrictions "is exactly the opposite of what the District needs right now."
The D.C. voting bill "enjoys widespread support," he said. "That's why they had to go to this unusual tactic."
Yesterday's action marked the first time the full House had considered granting the District a voting seat in Congress since 1993, when a statehood measure was defeated. Congress passed a constitutional amendment in 1978 to give D.C. residents voting representation in the House and Senate, but it later died after failing to win ratification from the required 38 states.
District residents have not had a full vote in Congress since 1801, when Washington became the federal enclave.
Democrats, who recently won control of Congress, have made a priority of giving a vote to the mostly African American city. In floor speeches yesterday, they described it as an issue of fairness, linking it to laws and court decisions that gave blacks full rights.
Opponents said the bill violated Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution, which reserves representation to the House to people "of the several States."
"The Constitution is not a cafeteria. You can't pick and choose which parts you're going to respect and which parts you're going to ignore," said Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Tex.).
Supporters of the bill cite another section of the Constitution: the "District Clause," which gives Congress sweeping powers over the city's affairs.
"Those opposing this bill ignore 200 years of case law and clear instructions from the court that this is a congressional matter and requires a congressional solution," Davis said in his floor speech.
Although Democrats accused their opponents of playing a partisan trick, it appeared that the majority party inadvertently provided the loophole that Republicans exploited, congressional staffers said.
Normally, the pro-gun language proposed by Republicans would be ruled as not germane, they said. But in fine-tuning the bill before it went to the floor, Democrats inserted language on funding the two new representatives. That allowed a wider variety of amendments to be attached.
"The Democrats were, unfortunately, outmaneuvered," said an aide to a congressman supportive of the bill.
Nelson Rimensnyder, a Capitol Hill resident, was among those avidly following the debate in the House visitors' gallery.
"This is history," said the retiree, a D.C. flag pin on his blazer. But later, as he strained to follow the reasons for postponing a vote, he learned that history would have to wait.
"This is weird," he said, his face a mix of fatigue and confusion.
Staff writer Paul Schwartzman and staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.