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Could This Be the Year?

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.

· Republicans want to expand their reach beyond the white suburban base to appeal not only to blacks, but to Hispanics and other immigrants who may see a District seat as a symbol of a country embracing its minority population.

Several Republicans who have switched sides on D.C. voting rights in recent weeks said that Kemp persuaded them to focus on this as the premier civil rights question of the day.

"I would like someday for African Americans to feel more at home in the Republican Party than they have in the past 70 years," said Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana. "I cannot believe the Founders intended to deny 550,000 Americans representation."

Kemp points to Republican opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act as the moment when his party lost the bulk of its black support, and he warns against a repeat performance. "Members say, 'Well, black people in L.A. don't care about this,' " Kemp says of his conversations with lawmakers. "Let me tell you, African Americans know that Washington, D.C., is a majority-black city with an African American mayor. This is one of the last chances the Republicans have to be a truly national party."

· In the shadow of an unpopular war and a gloomy cloud of anti-American sentiment around the world, an increasing number of Republicans are looking for ways to counter criticism that the United States is less than a paragon of democratic virtue at home.

On a trip to see the chief executive of Hong Kong, Davis raised the issue of China's interference with that city's election system. The chief executive turned on the congressman, saying, "Don't you lecture me -- you don't even let residents of your capital city vote." U.S. officials are apparently encountering ever more such difficult moments abroad.

"Young men and women are being sent from D.C. to Baghdad," Kemp says. "The hypocrisy is painful. It's just unbelievable how Republicans could turn away from American citizens who want to vote. I don't see how they can sleep at night."

· Americans are sick of polarization in Washington, in the media and in the way politicians market themselves. The D.C. voting rights bill presents Republicans with an opportunity to demonstrate independence from purely partisan motivations (even as the scheme to grant an extra seat to Utah seeks to neutralize the partisan impact of the change).

"This is about being on the right or wrong side of history," said Rep. Paul D. Ryan, a conservative from Wisconsin. After he and his wife went on a civil rights pilgrimage with Rep. John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat, he came home determined "to make sure that if I see this kind of injustice in my time, I'm not complicit in it."

As the D.C. vote takes on new levels of meaning, opposition remains strong. The White House has made it clear that aides will recommend that the president veto any expansion of D.C. voting rights. Supporters in the Senate expect Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky to lead a filibuster against it. Ostensibly, McConnell and the Bush administration base their opposition on constitutional objections to a D.C. seat, but Davis says the real reason "is purely political. They see it as one more seat for the other side." Some Republicans figure their party will get the extra seat in Utah anyway in the redistricting after the next census.

But with Republican Orrin G. Hatch of Utah and independent Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut sponsoring the Senate version of the bill, voting rights advocates say they can fend off a filibuster. "We don't need Republicans to vote for the bill," Davis says. "We just need nine to stop a filibuster, and we think we have them."

For the many Republicans who still believe that the Constitution poses an impassable barrier, Davis has one plea: Let the courts decide. And he has a delicious tool of persuasion, a strongly argued brief in favor of the constitutionality of a D.C. vote written by former special prosecutor Kenneth W. Starr and law professor Viet D. Dinh, who helped write the USA Patriot Act. Both are conservative scholars who draw deep respect from Republicans.

"I talk to members of Congress about this and they literally walk away, saying the bill is unconstitutional. Unconstitutional? They voted for the Patriot Act!" Kemp says. "A presidential veto on this would consign the Republican Party in perpetuity to 8 to 10 percent of the black vote."

If this is finally the year when District residents get their voice in the House, it won't be because of any novel constitutional interpretation or any newfound love of the city. It will be for the most traditional of political reasons: A bunch of politicians needed an issue -- a way to show that even in this dark hour, they could strike a blow for democracy and the validity of the American ideal.

marcfisher@washpost.com

Marc Fisher is a Metro columnist for The Washington Post.

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