By Mary Beth Sheridan and Yolanda Woodlee
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, April 20, 2007
A bill giving the District its first full seat in Congress cleared the House yesterday, marking the city's biggest legislative victory in its quest for voting rights in nearly three decades.
Democrats on the House floor burst into applause, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) grabbed the arms of the District's nonvoting delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton, as the 241 to 177 vote was announced.
"There was nothing but joy in the chamber this afternoon, because we knew we had given this bill the kind of send-off that can get it through the Senate," Norton (D) said later.
But the bill faces considerable obstacles. Democrats don't appear to have enough votes in the Senate to avoid a filibuster, and the White House has threatened a veto. If the measure becomes law, it probably will be challenged in court.
Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) vowed to bring the legislation to the Senate "as quickly as possible." Aides said he would seek a vote on the bill by the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, which he chairs, in the next few months.
The legislation, sponsored by Norton and Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), would add two seats to the House: one for the overwhelmingly Democratic District and another for the next state in line to pick up a representative, Republican-leaning Utah.
Although the bill was fashioned as a political compromise, only 22 Republicans supported it, including one from Utah. All but six Democrats present voted for it.
Several Republicans contended that the bill violated the constitutional requirement that House representatives come from states.
"The Constitution is clear. Let's follow it or amend it," said Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.), who brandished a poster with constitutional quotes during the debate.
The bill's supporters argued that the District deserves full House representation because its residents pay taxes and serve in the U.S. military. They said a D.C. seat could be created under constitutional provisions giving Congress sweeping powers over the District.
Democrats steered the bill through final House passage a month after it was temporarily derailed by Republicans who tried to attach language overturning the District's strict anti-gun laws.
This time, Democrats broke the voting rights measure into two bills written so narrowly that Republicans couldn't change them much under House rules. One would add the two representatives to the House, and the other would make a small change in the tax code to pay for the legislation.
The budget measure passed 216 to 203 and was then combined with the voting rights bill that had passed.
Supporters called the bill's passage their biggest victory since 1978, when Congress approved a constitutional amendment to give the city two senators and a House representative. The amendment died after failing to win passage by enough states. The current legislation would not give the District senators.
A news conference after the vote drew a jubilant group of members of Congress, D.C. leaders and activists. They hugged and shook hands, savoring the moment.
"It's been a great day," said House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), who had emphasized in his floor speech that District residents haven't been able to vote for congressional representation since 1801. "It's never too late to do the right thing."
Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), who this week led thousands of people in a voting rights march on Congress, said residents "appreciate the history of this moment."
"This was a statement about our country's principles, values and morals. That we would no longer be the only democratic-represented country in the world where the citizens of the nation's capital did not have a vote in the national legislature," he said.
During the floor debate, several Republicans waved copies of the Constitution as they said the bill violated the intentions of the founding fathers. Taking pains to emphasize that they were not against voting rights, they urged taking a different route to give the District a full House seat: ceding the non-federal portion of the city back to Maryland.
That prompted an angry riposte from Norton.
"If you believe in democracy, I suggest you ask the state of Maryland before you cede back anything," she declared, waving a finger.
Replied Gohmert: "I'm shocked at the inference Maryland thinks so little of the people of the District of Columbia they wouldn't want them."
Maryland and D.C. officials have made it clear that they are not interested in having the District attached to its neighbor.
Legal scholars have differed over the bill's constitutionality. Davis, who conceived of the measure four years ago, noted that the legislation had passed muster with some prominent constitutional-law experts.
"We are convinced that this Congress has all the authority we need to expand freedom and liberty in this nation," Davis said.
Opposition to the legislation goes beyond constitutional concerns. Some Republicans have contended that Democrats will use it as a mechanism to eventually gain two D.C. Senate seats.
All lawmakers from the D.C. area who were in the chamber voted for the legislation except for Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett (R-Md.). Norton can vote only in committee, but she was able to speak in favor of the bill on the House floor.
The bill involved creative legislative tinkering by Democrats who wanted to add the D.C. House seat and keep their promise to pay for any spending involved in new legislation.
The voting rights bill will cost about $2.5 million, largely because of the costs of the Utah seat. According to the legislation passed yesterday, the money will be raised by requiring people with incomes of at least $5 million a year to pay taxes slightly earlier.
"It will affect only 4,000 multimillionaires," said Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who led the Democrats' debate on the measure.
But Republicans fumed over the legislative engineering and Democratic efforts to keep them from offering amendments. Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) called it "Orwellian democracy."