D.C. Voting Rights in Senate's Hands

By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Senate will decide Tuesday whether to take up the D.C. voting rights bill, holding a technical vote that could determine the measure's fate, officials said yesterday.

The vote will be a key gauge of the bill's support. If its backers can line up the 60 senators necessary to proceed, they would put the measure on track for a floor vote. They would also show they might be able to fend off delaying tactics by opponents as the legislation moves forward.

But if they can't reach that threshold, the bill would stall. It would be the latest disappointment in decades of efforts to gain a congressional vote for the nation's capital.

The bill was crafted as a political compromise. It would add two seats to the House, one for the heavily Democratic District and the other for the next state in line to pick up a seat. That is Utah, which leans Republican.

"The votes are very close," Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said at a news conference yesterday. "I think this is something the District of Columbia and Utah deserve," he added, pledging "to see if I can get 60 votes."

But Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) strongly opposes the legislation, saying it violates the Constitution's instructions that House members come from states. "Senator McConnell's Constitution is getting worn out from showing it to reporters," said his spokesman, Don Stewart.

The White House has criticized the legislation and threatened to veto it. Even if it were to become law, it almost certainly would face a court challenge. Legal scholars are divided on whether it is constitutional, with some maintaining that Congress has the power to treat the District as a state for some purposes.

Although Tuesday's vote is critical, it is not the only hurdle facing the D.C. vote legislation. Action on the bill could be delayed for weeks even if supporters claim a win that day.

That's because the Senate already has a packed schedule, with Iraq expected to dominate floor action next week, said Rodell Mollineau, a Reid spokesman. If the Senate approves the motion to consider the D.C. vote bill, the legislation will have to get in line behind other business, the spokesman said.

The Senate would get to a vote on the bill "hopefully before adjournment" for the week-long Columbus Day break, the spokesman said.

But the District's nonvoting delegate in the House, Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), said she hoped a positive initial vote might lead to quicker consideration.

Norton and Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) co-sponsored the D.C. vote bill that passed the House in April. Both said they were confident the Senate bill would clear next week's procedural hurdle and were pleased Reid was bringing it up.

"I think we have the votes," Davis said in an interview. But, he added, "it's going to be close."

Several unknowns could affect the tally. Chief among them are the plans of several senators who are publicly uncommitted. Although supporters think they have the 51 votes needed to pass the D.C. vote bill, they have struggled to get the 60 votes necessary for the Senate to take up the measure.

Another unknown is whether several supporters of the bill will be in town. Democratic senators Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), Barack Obama (Ill.), Christopher J. Dodd (Ill.) and Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.) are running for president and could be on the campaign trail.

In addition, "there are Republican presidential candidates whose votes we would very much like to have," said Lloyd Leonard, a lobbyist with the League of Women Voters, mentioning senators Sam Brownback (Kan.) and John McCain (Ariz.). They have not publicly promised to vote for the bill.

An influential Republican, Orrin G. Hatch (Utah), is co-sponsoring the bill in the Senate along with Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.).

Supporters of the bill said they would intensify their efforts to lobby undecided senators.

"I want to spend the rest of the week on the phone, just calling everyone I can, going in to see people, doing everything possible to let them know this is a huge priority for the city and a huge priority for the country also," said D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D).

© 2007 The Washington Post Company