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Backers Of Voting Rights Face Split
Some in District Don't Want to Settle For Just House Seat

By David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 10, 2008

Back in the summer of 2007, Sen. Barack Obama stood near a community center with D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and said: "Folks in D.C. still don't have a voice in their national government. That's wrong. Residents shouldn't be treated like tenants."

Now that Obama (D) is poised to become the 44th president and both houses of Congress are majority Democratic, District leaders and activists say they're in the best position ever to secure representation for the city on Capitol Hill.

What they don't agree on is how many seats to seek -- just one in the House, or one in the House and two in the Senate?

The city's political leadership largely thinks the District should focus strictly on the House, the strategy that has been in play during the Bush administration. A bill that would grant a House seat to the District, as well as an additional seat to predominantly Republican Utah for political balance, fell three votes short of reaching the Senate floor last year after being passed by the House.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), who has championed the D.C. voting rights bill, said there is no reason to change course. House and Senate members are familiar with the legislation, Norton said, and it should have more than enough support in both branches now that the Democrats have picked up six Senate seats.

"I really can't think of a scenario by which we could fail," Norton said. "Why not do it?"

Statehood advocates, who have pushed for Congress to award the city two senators and a representative, are quick to offer a few reasons. They decried Norton's strategy as shortsighted and self-defeating, arguing that the Democratic sweep presents a rare chance to make a play for the whole shebang.

Playing off Obama's campaign slogan, Timothy Cooper, an international human rights worker who lives in the District, said supporting the House-only strategy is akin to a "no we can't" attitude. Even if the city is successful in winning the House seat, Cooper said, the act would almost certainly be challenged in court on grounds that it is unconstitutional.

"That may leave us with no vote, Utah achieving its goal of getting an additional seat and the moment in history when we could reach for the stars behind us," Cooper said. "This era would have come and gone, with Congress changing and Obama losing his political capital."

Instead, Cooper asked, why not try for statehood, and, if that fails, resort to plan B?

Fenty (D), who endorsed Obama at the community center event in the summer of 2007, said Obama pledged in a private conversation to support "full voting rights." That, the mayor added, has traditionally meant two senators and a representative.

Fenty declined to take a position on what route the city should pursue, saying he wants to work with the Obama administration, congressional leaders and other city officials to develop a game plan that has the best chance for success.

"I agree with people who say we should have a proposal that moves through fast," Fenty said. "I don't think we should put something that is just going to be debated and then could die. How aggressive that proposal could be, I don't think we know yet."

The problem with pushing for statehood, some city officials and activists said, is scaring off those who would otherwise support giving the city a House seat. Opponents of D.C. statehood have said the move would destroy the idea of a separate national capital and unfairly grant Senate representation to a single city.

In the early 1990s, when Bill Clinton was president and Democrats ruled Congress, a push for statehood was soundly defeated.

"If we put it out there that we're going for two senators because of the enthusiasm around Obama, it could have the effect of undermining the effort," said D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D). "Of course I want that, but we ought to go get this [voting rights bill] done, then pursue legislative and budget autonomy [from Congress]. It's a systematic, methodical approach that takes it piece by piece and will not put us in a situation where some who may have supported our actions are stopped because the view of having two senators is more extreme."

Ilir Zherka, executive director of DC Vote, a nonprofit group that pushes for District representation, noted that the city must not take for granted that the voting rights bill will sail through Congress. For example, it's not a given, he said, that the six Democratic senators who unseated Republicans will support the bill.

"Certainly, Washingtonians deserve full voting representation in Congress," Zherka said. "We all know what D.C. residents deserve. The question is, what is possible?"

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