11th-Hour Pressure Applied on D.C. Vote
Tuesday, September 18, 2007
Facing a critical Senate vote today, supporters and opponents of the D.C. voting rights bill made impassioned speeches and lobbied on Capitol Hill in a last-minute push on the District's efforts to get its first full member of Congress.
The motion coming up on the Senate floor would merely clear the way for lawmakers to consider the bill. But if supporters fail to get the necessary 60 votes, the legislation will probably be doomed for this year, according to senators and staff.
Both sides expect a close vote. So, in an eleventh-hour offensive yesterday, advocacy groups launched a nationwide call-in campaign to senators' offices. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), meanwhile, joined the District's nonvoting House delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), at a rally in which they recalled the Senate's notorious history of filibustering civil rights legislation.
"Not since segregation has the Senate blocked a voting rights bill. And this is a voting rights bill," Fenty declared outside the Dirksen Senate Office Building. Behind him, about 60 activists waved signs reading "I Demand the Vote."
The bill, which passed the House in April, is crafted as a political compromise. It would add two seats to the House of Representatives, one for the heavily Democratic District and the other for the next state in line to pick up an extra seat: currently Utah, which leans Republican.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is strongly critical of the bill, as is the White House, which has threatened a veto. McConnell vehemently denied yesterday that resisting the legislation was tantamount to opposing voting rights.
"The right to vote is fundamental, and I will fight any attempt to dilute or impede that right," McConnell said on the Senate floor, in a speech distributed by his press office. "My opposition to this bill rests instead on a single all-important fact: It is clearly and unambiguously unconstitutional."
Critics of the legislation point to the Constitution's instructions that House members be chosen by "the People of the several States." Because the District is not a state, it doesn't qualify, they say.
Proponents note that the Constitution also gives Congress broad powers over the District, which they maintain are sufficient to create a House seat for the city.
Legal scholars are divided on the bill's constitutionality.
Although the debate has focused on constitutional arguments, political considerations loom large. Some opponents fear the D.C. vote bill could eventually lead to two senators for the District, who would probably be Democrats.
For the first time since he was elected mayor last year, Fenty plans to appear on the Senate floor for today's vote, under a provision allowing him special access to the lawmakers in the chamber. He was placing calls to several uncommitted senators yesterday.
"It's all one-on-one at this point," Fenty said. "Every vote is going to count."
Norton sent an open letter to senators recalling the dramatic filibusters of the 1960s, which "sought to deny equal rights to African Americans." She added that stymieing a bill that would give House representation to the majority-black city would have a similar effect.
The rally at the Dirksen building drew members of the D.C. Council, former Republican representative Jack Kemp (N.Y.) and civil rights activists from McConnell's home state, who met with the minority leader yesterday, accompanied by Ilir Zherka of the advocacy group DC Vote.
The activists did not get far in attempting to win over McConnell.
"Basically, he laid out a strategy whereby he opposes us at every step," Zherka said.