By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 12, 2009
A Senate committee easily passed a bill yesterday that would give the District its first full seat in the House of Representatives, sending it to the full chamber for a crucial vote expected in the next few weeks or months.
The Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs approved the legislation 11 to 1 at its first business meeting in the new Congress. The lone "no" vote was cast by Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the 2008 Republican presidential nominee.
It's not clear when the legislation will reach the Senate floor for what is likely to be its main showdown. In 2007, a similar bill died in the Senate after falling three votes short of the 60 needed to head off a filibuster. But proponents believe they are in better shape now thanks to Democratic gains in the last election.
"We hope and believe this is our year," said committee Chairman Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), a longtime champion of congressional representation for the District. The bill is expected to pass the House, as it did two years ago.
The measure would permanently expand the 435-member House by two seats. One would go to the overwhelmingly Democratic District, and the other to the state next in line to pick up a seat based on population. For the next few years, the seat would go to Utah, which leans Republican.
All nine Democrats at the meeting voted for the legislation; the committee's other Democrat, Sen. Daniel K. Akaka (Hawaii) voted in favor by proxy -- a symbolic way of signaling support. Two of the three Republicans present -- Susan Collins (Maine) and George V. Voinovich (Ohio) -- backed the bill. Three who were absent indicated their opposition in proxy votes: Sen. Tom Coburn (Okla.), John Ensign (Nev.) and Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.).
McCain said that the bill violated the Constitution's provision that House representatives be chosen by "the people of the several states," since the District is not a state.
"I think it's unconstitutional," he said. He added, "If the District of Columbia deserves a member of the House of Representatives, they deserve two senators as well."
Many Republicans have been wary that the bill could lead to two D.C. seats in the Senate, which would probably give Democrats a significant boost. The question of constitutionality has elicited differing opinions from legal scholars. If the bill becomes law, it is expected to face an immediate legal challenge.
Supporters at the hearing argued that the bill would right a historical wrong.
Sen. Roland W. Burris (D-Ill.), who was recently appointed to fill President Barack Obama's Senate seat, said he became aware of the D.C. vote issue when he attended the Howard University School of Law in the early 1960s.
"It's about time we get some representation for the District of Columbia," he said.
Jim Manley, a spokesman for Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), said the senator would try to move the bill to the floor "as quickly as we can." That could take weeks or even months, though, because of a congressional schedule jammed with priorities such as the economic stimulus package, the 2009 budget and the bank bailout.
Manley indicated that the majority leader's office had not had time to assess the legislation's chance of passage. "We've got a new Congress. We need to see where the votes are" on the bill, he said.
Democrats hold a 58 to 41 advantage in the Senate. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said she believed the bill had the 60 Senate supporters necessary to overcome a filibuster.
"Our people can virtually taste this vote," she said.