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.
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.
"If the District of Columbia deserves a member of the House of Representatives, they deserve two senators as well," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the former presidential candidate, in a speech against the bill this month.
Obama indicated a month ago that the D.C. measure might take time to pass because the legislative agenda was "chock-full." But the bill easily passed the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs on Feb. 12. It became one of the few pieces of legislation ready for action when senators return from a week-long break today.
The D.C. vote measure is also positioned to move through the House soon. The Judiciary Committee is expected to approve it this week, setting up a key vote by the entire body, possibly in early March, House officials said.
"The major obstacles, I think, are in the Senate," Norton said. That is because of the rule in that chamber requiring 60 votes for "cloture" -- to end a filibuster.
The Senate is scheduled to hold a cloture vote tomorrow on whether to take up the bill. If it succeeds, a debate will follow that could stretch over days. It is not clear whether the final vote on the bill will occur by the end of the week.
The Democratic caucus holds a 58-41 advantage in the Senate. At least 55 Democrats are likely to vote to begin action on the bill, according to estimates by D.C. voting rights supporters and a count by The Washington Post. As in 2007, at least two Democrats are expected to not support the bill: Sen. Robert C. Byrd (W.Va.) and Sen. Max Baucus (Mont.). In addition, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) is ill, and it is unclear whether he will be present.
Seven of the eight Republicans senators who backed the measure in 2007 are expected to vote to begin consideration of the bill. The eighth Republican, Norm Coleman, is locked in a legal battle over the fall election results for the Minnesota seat, which hasn't been filled.
At least two senators -- Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah) and Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) -- said Friday that they would vote to take up the bill but that they weren't sure they would support it on final passage. A bill needs only a simple majority of those present on the ultimate vote. Bennett made his comments to the Salt Lake Tribune.
A Republican leadership aide, speaking on condition of anonymity, said supporters appeared to have enough votes to start debate on the bill, unlike in 2007, when they fell three votes short.
For Ilir Zherka, executive director of DC Vote, an advocacy group, the biggest question surrounding the bill was what kind of amendments opponents would offer. Amendments could peel off some voting rights supporters.
"We're trying to prepare for those amendments," he said.
One possibility was an amendment that would weaken the District's gun laws, he said. Such a measure was introduced in the 2007 House vote on the D.C. vote legislation, temporarily derailing it. The bill was passed, however, after a month-long delay.
DC Vote is holding a "Senate call-in day" today for people in the states to ring their senators toll-free and encourage them to vote for the bill. D.C. residents can participate, with their calls transferred to various senators.
If the bill becomes law, it would mark the biggest legislative victory for D.C. voting rights since Congress passed a constitutional amendment in 1978 that would have given the city two senators and a House representative.
That measure collapsed seven years later, when only 16 of the required 38 states ratified it. Then, in 1993, a bill for D.C. statehood was rebuffed by the House.
Former representative Tom Davis (R-Va.), who first proposed the political compromise at the heart of the current bill in 2003, said he was optimistic this time.
A voting representative, he said, is "long overdue in the nation's capital."