D.C. Voting-Rights Debate Nears Do-or-Die Moment

By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 16, 2007

For the first time in almost 30 years, the full Senate plans to take up the D.C. voting-rights issue in a showdown Tuesday that could either give the legislation a strong push or kill it for this year.

Lawmakers will decide whether the Senate should consider the bill, laying the groundwork for a vote on the legislation itself. If proponents can't muster the 60 votes needed to get through this stage, the legislation will probably stall for months, according to senators and staff members.

"This is the big vote," said Lloyd Leonard, director of advocacy for the League of Women Voters, which is pushing for approval. "And so we are all making sure that anyone who knows a U.S. senator is going to talk to them."

The vote could be a cliffhanger. Almost all of the Senate's 51 Democrats and independents back the bill, as do at least five Republican members.

"We think unless something happens -- arms are twisted -- that we have it," said Nancy Zirkin, a top official with the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, another major backer of the bill.

But opponents, led by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), are pressing senators to stop the bill. They say it is unconstitutional and could give the District a foot in the door to get voting senators, too.

The bill would expand the House of Representatives from 435 to 437 seats. It was designed as a political compromise, with one seat going to the heavily Democratic District and the other to the next state in line to pick up a seat: Utah, which leans Republican.

After the House approved the bill in April, proponents called on the Senate to quickly follow suit, noting that the measure doesn't affect that chamber's makeup. But some Republicans say they fear that the bill could be used as a springboard for Senate representation for the District, handing Democrats a powerful advantage.

"The primary worry is that the minute this happens, there will be a big onslaught to have two senators," said Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), who is co-sponsoring the bill with Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.).

Many D.C. activists acknowledge that's their eventual goal. But getting voting senators for the nation's capital would be a much stiffer challenge: Hatch and some other supporters of the current bill say they would fight the idea.

Much of the debate surrounding the bill has focused not on 21st century Washington but 18th century America: specifically, the intentions of the Founding Fathers. McConnell has contended that the legislation violates the constitutional provision that House members be chosen "by the people of the several states."

"This bill is clearly unconstitutional" because the District is not a state, said McConnell's spokesman, Don Stewart.

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