By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 25, 2009
For the first time since the 1970s, the U.S. Senate decided yesterday to take up a D.C. voting rights bill, fueling hopes that the District is finally nearing its longtime goal of having a full member of the House of Representatives.
The 62 to 34 vote was on whether to consider the bill. But the strong "yes" tally indicated that there could be enough support to pass the measure in the Senate, which has a 60-vote threshold to prevent a filibuster. Two years ago, the bill died after failing to clear that hurdle.
The vote came as the legislation moves ahead in the House, where it enjoys broad support. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said she expects the legislation to pass the Judiciary Committee today. And, for the first time in years, the bill also has a champion in the White House.
The legislation still faces obstacles -- such as possible attempts to kill it through amendments and a probable challenge that could go to the Supreme Court. But a beaming Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) called the initial Senate vote "a breakthrough in the full franchise of the people of the District of Columbia."
The Senate bill would permanently add two seats to the 435-member House. One would go to the heavily Democratic District, and the other would be assigned to Republican-leaning Utah through 2012, when congressional seats are reapportioned. Utah barely missed getting an additional representative after the last U.S. Census.
The legislation could come to a final vote as soon as tomorrow, said Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.).
In a brief debate yesterday, Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) assailed the bill as constitutionally flawed.
"The Constitution of the United States could not be clearer . . . that representation [in the House] is limited to states," he said. He was referring to the Constitution's language that House representatives be chosen by the "people of the several states."
Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), the bill's co-sponsors, said the District is often treated legally as a state in matters such as taxation and interstate commerce. The senators said the Constitution gives Congress sweeping authority over matters related to the District, which they said could include adding a House seat.
Legal scholars have been divided about the bill's constitutionality.
At an afternoon news conference, Reid said he was sure the bill would survive court scrutiny if it is approved and signed into law by President Obama.
As for possible amendments that could tie up or torpedo the bill, the majority leader said, "We feel confident that any mischievous amendment will be tabled."
In the Senate, a variety of amendments can be proposed for legislation even if they have little to do with a bill.
Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) has said he will offer an amendment to prevent the Federal Communications Commission from reinstating the Fairness Doctrine, which was implemented in 1949 to ensure fair coverage of controversial subjects by broadcasters. It was suspended in 1987, and DeMint said he fears Democrats want to reinstate the rules.
In addition, Kyl indicated that opponents would try to amend the D.C. bill to have the non-federal portion of the District retrocede to Maryland.
Ilir Zherka, the executive director of DC Vote, an advocacy group, said: "We're anticipating amendments on all the hot-button issues" -- including the District's gun control laws. A gun amendment temporarily derailed the D.C. vote bill in the House in 2007, but it eventually passed.
Eight Republicans voted yesterday to proceed with the D.C. vote bill, including two surprises: Sens. Thad Cochran (Miss.) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska). Both had opposed consideration of the measure in 2007, when it failed by three votes to be sent to the floor.
Murkowski told reporters yesterday that she thought the bill was unconstitutional and that she ultimately would oppose its passage. Her yes vote, she said, was to allow differing views to be aired. "The people of the District of Columbia have expressed quite clearly they want to have this debate," she said.
Supporters of the bill were not concerned about her voting no later because on final passage, legislation needs a simple majority of those present and voting. But it could face at least one more filibuster fight before that last round.
Sen. Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah), who voted to consider the bill in 2007, went the other way this time.
Although yesterday's vote was on a technical procedure, emotions ran strong on both sides.
In his floor speech, Kyl said the District doesn't need a vote. The city "already has representation in Congress -- 100 senators and 435 House members," he said. He cited figures showing that the city receives more federal dollars per inhabitant than any of the 50 states, but he acknowledged that includes money spent on federal buildings.
He warned about adding a D.C. House member whose "goal would be to expand the District's share of federal spending."
Lieberman said the bill would correct a "fundamental injustice."
"Today, with nearly 600,000 residents, the District has a population roughly equal to or greater than the states of Alaska, North Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming. But sadly, its residents have not been allowed to be full participants in our democracy," he said.
Norton is allowed to vote in committee but not on final passage of legislation.
Norton and Fenty, with 10 of the 13 D.C. Council members, watched the proceedings in the Senate. Dozens of D.C. vote supporters, ranging from students to graying activists, peered down from the visitors gallery. Monsignor Raymond East of St. Theresa of Avila Catholic Church in Southeast Washington was among them.
"We got the whole church praying for D.C. statehood," he said. "God told us that we are all his children, and we are equal in his sight, but we have been treated separate and unequal for 200 years in the District."
The bill would not make the District a state, some activists' goal.
Beyond the issues of principle, the bill has raised concerns among some Republicans about political costs. They worry that the measure could lead to the creation of two D.C. senators, potentially giving Democrats a big boost in the 100-seat chamber.
Almost six in 10 Americans back legislation giving Washington a full voting member in the House, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll. About a third of adults nationwide oppose the idea.
The last time the Senate took up a D.C. vote bill was in 1978, when it passed a constitutional amendment that would have given the District representation in both chambers. That amendment failed to garner enough support in the states.
Staff writers Jennifer Agiesta, Hamil R. Harris, David Nakamura and Nikita Stewart and polling director Jon Cohen contributed to this report.