By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 19, 2007
Republican lawmakers yesterday blocked the Senate from taking up the D.C. vote bill, a potentially fatal setback for the District's most promising effort in years to get a full member of Congress.
The vote was on a motion to simply consider the bill. Fifty-seven senators voted in favor, three short of the 60 needed to proceed. Without enough support to vault the Senate's procedural hurdles, the bill is expected to stall this year and possibly next year.
The Senate action was a crushing disappointment to many activists in the decades-long campaign for voting representation in Congress. The bill, which passed the House in April, has gone further than any other D.C. vote measure in almost 30 years.
Glum-faced supporters vowed to fight on.
"We have not given up," said Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), the District's nonvoting congressional delegate. "The session is not over. We have come too far to stop now."
The bill was a compromise aimed at appealing to both parties. It would expand the House by two seats: one for the overwhelmingly Democratic District and the other for the next state in line to add a seat. That state currently is Utah, which is heavily Republican. Utah would also gain an electoral vote.
The Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), and the White House have strongly criticized the legislation. They maintain that, because the District is not a state, the bill violates the constitutional mandate that House members be chosen by the "People of the several States."
"I opposed this bill because it is clearly and unambiguously unconstitutional," McConnell said in a statement. "If the residents of the District are to get a member for themselves, they have a remedy: amend the Constitution."
In addition to voicing legal concerns, opponents were wary of the bill's potential political repercussions. Some Republicans feared that the measure could eventually lead to the addition of two full D.C. senators, who probably would be Democrats.
Yesterday's vote marked the first time the full Senate had considered the D.C. voting rights issue since 1978, when it passed a constitutional amendment that would have given the city voting representatives in the House and Senate. The amendment died seven years later after getting approval from only 16 of the 38 states required for ratification.
Proponents have portrayed the bill as a civil rights measure, saying that depriving a majority African American city of a vote echoes discriminatory practices outlawed decades ago. They also have said it is hypocritical for the United States to fight for voting rights in Iraq while denying them in its own capital.
"It's time to end the injustice, the national embarrassment that citizens of this great capital city don't have voting representation in Congress," Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), a co-sponsor of the bill, said in a brief floor session before the vote. Opponents did not make speeches.
Voting rights supporters said they planned to regroup and said they hoped that Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) would bring up the bill again. But they acknowledged that is highly unlikely this year and might not happen in the 2007-08 session.
"We would really have to convince him we had 60 votes," Lieberman said. "He's not going to go through this exercise again to lose it."
Proponents blamed their loss on aggressive last-minute lobbying by the Republican leadership. They said three Republican senators who had indicated support for moving the bill forward changed their minds: Gordon Smith (Ore.), John McCain (Ariz.) and Thad Cochran (Miss.).
But two Democrats also did not vote for the bill to proceed. They were Robert C. Byrd (W.Va.), who was absent and whose support had been considered doubtful, and Max Baucus (Mont.).
Baucus said in a written statement that he opposed the bill because Montana has only one House vote. "If we were to expand the House, Montana's voice would become less influential," he said.
His spokesman denied reports that Baucus had promised to side with his party if he turned out to be the deciding vote.
Baucus, standing in the well of the Senate, was the last to vote, raising his arm and jabbing a finger downward.
"Fifty-seven?" exclaimed Norton as she realized the motion would fall short. She and Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) were on the Senate floor for the vote. So was the man who came up with the idea of pairing a D.C. seat with one for Utah: Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.).
"It's crummy," Davis said. But, he added, "a lot of time, legislation takes years to get through."
Eight Republicans voted to allow the bill to proceed. In addition to Utah's two senators, they included three previously uncommitted lawmakers: Arlen Specter (Pa.), Richard G. Lugar (Ind.) and Olympia J. Snowe (Maine). The measure already had support from three moderate Republicans: Susan Collins (Maine), George V. Voinovich (Ohio) and Norm Coleman (Minn.).
In the Senate, 60 votes are needed if there is not unanimous consent to proceed with a bill.
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), a co-sponsor of the bill, called on its critics to at least allow a full floor debate on its constitutionality. He and other supporters say the Constitution gives Congress sufficient power over the District to create a House seat for it.
"When has the U.S. Senate been afraid to debate a constitutional issue as important as this one?" he said in a brief floor speech.
Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.) was the only member of the local congressional delegation to vote against moving forward with the bill. Warner said he was drafting a constitutional amendment to provide D.C. residents with representation in Congress.
"My view is that only a constitutional amendment . . . will resolve this issue and thereby avoid interminable litigation flowing from an act of Congress," he said before the vote.