Could This Be the Year?

Saying yea: An April march and rally supporting voting rights for the District.
Saying yea: An April march and rally supporting voting rights for the District. (By Jacquelyn Martin -- Associated Press)
By Marc Fisher
Sunday, May 6, 2007

For decades now, eyes have rolled and members of Congress have fled for the exits when the perennial nags from the D.C. voting rights movement have come around with their incessant whining about the terrible injustice visited upon the people of Washington.

Elected officials well-schooled in the art of saying "No" without ever actually using the word made a special exception: No, no, no, they told D.C. residents, you may not have a seat in Congress. And if you don't like it, you can move to a state.

Well, strap yourselves in, because the rollercoaster journey toward adding a seat in the House for the District has reached its most ambitious height since the 1970s, and the wild ride is now heading into the Senate. A bill that would create one seat for Washington -- an assuredly Democratic slot -- and an additional one for Utah -- a Republican gimme -- passed the House last month by a vote of 241 to 177.

How this happened is almost as remarkable as the fact that the Senate is about to consider the issue. A battle that has been stuck on repeat for half a century has been altered by savvy political maneuvering and the desire by both political parties to stake out some moral high ground while the nation fights an unpopular war.

The arguments over D.C. voting rights always centered on two questions: Does the Constitution allow the District to have a seat in Congress? And why should Republicans consent to creating a seat that would be Democratic from now until at least the end of time?

But the D.C. voting rights issue has morphed into a way for Congress to address far less parochial questions, including the nation's political polarization, its inexorable ethnic diversification, its declining status in the world and a yearning for moral leadership at home.

"It's a harmonic political convergence," says Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and a lifelong Washingtonian who has pushed for D.C. voting rights for decades. "This bill is advancing in an unexpected way for several reasons, including a new bipartisanship on civil rights; the pairing of the District with Utah, which was a stroke of sheer political genius" by Republican Rep. Thomas M. Davis III of Virginia, "and the fundamental truth that we talk glibly about bringing democracy to Baghdad while people in this city are denied the vote."

Article I of the Constitution says plainly that "the House of Representatives shall be composed of Members chosen . . . by the People of the several states." The District is definitely not a state. So the legal debate over D.C. voting rights has always been a straightforward tug of war.

One side says, "Sorry, it would be great if half a million people weren't disenfranchised, but that's how the Founders wanted it; a state is a state, and you ain't a state."

The other side says, "Let's be real: When the Founders wrote that, the District barely existed and nobody envisioned a city sprawling far beyond its federal core. Anyway, Congress routinely treats the District as a state, allowing D.C. residents to file suit in federal court (even though the Constitution similarly restricts that right to 'Citizens of different States') and requiring city dwellers to pay federal income taxes."

The Constitution is still a big part of the argument. But listen closely to the latest round of this debate -- and especially to the battle raging inside the Republican Party -- and you will hear lots of other issues, and that's the District's grand new opportunity.

Only 22 Republicans broke with the White House and party leadership in Congress to support the voting-rights bill. But the ability of Davis and former congressman Jack Kemp to get even that many Republicans to resist the entreaties of party whips demonstrates how three larger issues have shifted the debate over the District.

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