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Supporters Upbeat About Bill to Give D.C. a Vote in Congress

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D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, Mayor Adrian Fenty and a host of local activist talk about the implications of the U.S. Senate voting in favor of giving the District a full vote in the House of Representatives. Video by Hamil Harris/The Washington Post

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By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 23, 2009

Supporters of D.C. voting rights believe that they are on the verge of their biggest victory in at least 30 years as the Senate prepares to take up a bill this week creating a full House seat for the District.

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Two years ago, a similar measure failed to clear a key procedural hurdle in that chamber by three votes. Democrats picked up at least seven Senate seats in the elections last fall, boosting the current bill's chance of passage. They also expanded their majority in the House, where the bill is expected to be approved as early as next month.

"I think the votes are there. I think it's going to pass the Senate," said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), who is sponsoring the bill with Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.).

In decades of struggle for representation, D.C. residents' hopes have often been raised and then dashed. This time, they are counting not only on bigger majorities in Congress but also on a supportive White House. President Obama calls himself a "strong proponent" of congressional representation for the District -- unlike President George W. Bush, who had threatened to veto the measure.

Although passage is likely, it is not ensured.

"The question is whether there will be an attempt to foul it up by amending it," Hatch said in an interview. He also said important differences remain between the Senate and House bills.

Even if the bill becomes law, it will probably be challenged in court. Opponents note that the Constitution gives House representation to the "people of the several states," and the District is not a state.

Still, advocates say they are the closest they've come in decades to having a real D.C. vote in Congress. The issue has particular resonance in a majority-black city whose affairs were long dominated by Southern white congressmen. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), the District's longtime voice in Congress, can vote only in committee and not on final passage of legislation.

"We were disappointed before, and we don't expect to be disappointed this time," said Lloyd Leonard, director of advocacy for the League of Women Voters.

As they did in 2007, the bill's authors are trying to appeal to both parties by adding a House seat for the District, which is heavily Democratic, and a second seat that would go to Utah for the next few years. Utah, which leans Republican, barely missed getting another representative after the last census.

The Senate bill calls for the seats to be added in the session that begins January 2011.

Members of both parties have decried D.C. residents' lack of a vote in Congress. But opponents of the bill say it is unconstitutional. And some lawmakers are wary that the legislation could be a first step in giving the District two senators -- significantly boosting Democrats' power in that body.


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