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D.C. Voting-Rights Debate Nears Do-or-Die Moment
Senate to Vote Tuesday on Whether Bill Can Advance

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.

The White House has made the same argument and threatened a veto if the legislation reaches President Bush's desk.

On the other side, legal scholars argue that Congress's broad powers over the District allow it to treat the city as a state for purposes of House representation.

Hatch said opponents were raising a legitimate constitutional concern. "But that argument should be debated on the floor," he said. "It shouldn't be stopped by a filibuster" before the bill's merits can be considered.

Lobbying on both sides has been intense. Proponents have published opinion pieces, organized call-in campaigns and even gotten rabbis to urge congregations at Jewish holy day services to pressure their senators.

The bill's supporters are focusing on a small group of senators who are publicly uncommitted, including Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) and Sam Brownback (R-Kan).

They also are urging some senators who oppose the bill to let it reach the floor for an up-or-down vote. Proponents have linked the issue of voting representation for the majority African American city to the civil rights movement, recalling the notorious Senate filibusters of that era.

"We can only be stopped by a [filibuster] process that was used in the 19th and 20th centuries, but that the country forced the Senate to discard on civil rights bills," said the District's nonvoting House delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton (D).

Proponents had hoped that Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.) would be an ally in getting the bill to the floor, despite his doubts about its constitutionality. But Warner said Friday that he would not vote for it to proceed and instead would draft a constitutional amendment on D.C. voting rights.

The House and Senate approved such an amendment in 1978 -- the closest the District has gotten to attaining full representation -- but the measure collapsed seven years later when only 16 of the required 38 states ratified it.

"Only a constitutional amendment . . . will resolve this issue, and thereby avoid interminable litigation flowing from an Act of Congress," Warner said in a statement.

The campaign against the D.C. vote bill is taking place largely behind the scenes. McConnell spoke out against the measure in his regular lunch with Republican senators last week, officials said.

Even Sen. Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah), a co-sponsor of the D.C. vote bill, told the Deseret Morning News that he was feeling pressure from McConnell, a close friend. Bennett said in a statement Thursday that he worried that the legislation could "become a covert way to give D.C. two senators."

He said he planned to offer an amendment to block that possibility.

The torturous path to passing the bill reflects the strong partisanship in Congress and the intricate ways of the Senate.

To be considered, a bill needs either to get the consent of all senators or to clear a 60-vote hurdle. In the past, senators agreed unanimously to let many bills move straight to the floor. But the 60-vote threshold, known as a cloture vote, has become more common.

"Since the beginning of the year, Republicans have done everything in their power to stall progress on bills," said Rodell Mollineau, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.).

He said Republicans have imposed the 60-vote hurdles on 15 bills in the eight months since they left the majority, whereas Democrats did so on 13 bills in the previous two years.

Stewart, the Republican leader's spokesman, said Democrats were the ones frittering away time by holding a "political vote" on the D.C. bill. He noted that if it gets 60 votes Tuesday, the legislation will be put on the back burner by Reid until the Senate gets through other business, such as Iraq measures.

"They're wasting legislative days on something they don't plan to proceed to," said Stewart, referring to the two-day pause required before a cloture vote.

Reid hopes to get a final vote on the D.C. bill before the week-long Columbus Day break, according to his spokesman.

The vote count is considered so close that the bill's supporters initially feared it could be affected by the presidential race. Six senators -- four Democrats and two Republicans -- are campaigning for their parties' nominations. But all of them will be in town for the vote, their offices said.

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