By Mary Beth Sheridan and Michael Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, February 26, 2009
Opponents of a bill that would award the District its first seat in the House of Representatives fought back yesterday with a blitz of amendments in the Senate, including one to repeal the city's gun-control laws that appeared to have significant support.
The amendments were proposed during a day of fiery speeches about the bill in the Senate and House, where it was approved by a key committee. Supporters and foes disagreed on whether the bill would restore basic democratic rights to D.C. residents or perform an end run around the Constitution.
The voting rights bill could come up for a final vote in the Senate today if both parties agree to quickly move through the five remaining amendments. In case they don't, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) filed a motion last night to end debate. That would probably push a final vote to Monday, officials said.
If approved, the measure would be the first D.C. voting rights bill passed by that body in more than 30 years. "The hope is we can work out an agreement to have votes on a handful of amendments and have final passage" tonight, said Jim Manley, a spokesman for Reid.
In the House, the Judiciary Committee passed its version of the bill 24 to 12. The legislation has widespread support in the House, which will take it up next week, Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said.
The bill is a political compromise that would permanently expand the House by two seats. One would go to the heavily Democratic District, and the other would go to Republican-leaning Utah for two years before being assigned to whatever state deserves it based on population. Utah narrowly missed getting an extra congressman after the last Census.
"Clearly, today, there's been an orgy of amendments offered to the D.C. House Voting Rights Act, partially in an effort to derail the bill, but also people are using it as an opportunity to put their pet issue" on the Senate floor, said Ilir Zherka, executive director of DC Vote, an advocacy group.
He said the gun amendment "could be a big problem here."
That amendment closely resembles a bill passed by the House but not the Senate last year. It alarmed D.C. officials by calling for the removal of almost all locally imposed gun-control rules.
Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) said he was introducing the amendment because the D.C. Council "has continued to enact onerous and unconstitutional firearms regulations" despite the Supreme Court decision last year overturning the city's ban on handguns.
He produced a large chart on the Senate floor that showed the city's murder rate over the years.
"Can you honestly tell me that gun control in D.C. has been effective?" Ensign asked.
He said 47 of his Senate colleagues had signed a letter last year supporting a similar version of the amendment. In addition, two new members of the Senate had indicated their support for it when they were in the House last year, he said.
A simple majority is enough to pass an amendment to the D.C. vote bill.
Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), the co-sponsor of the D.C. vote measure, called the amendment "shocking." He said it would remove prohibitions on gun ownership for children, chronic alcoholics and people who have been voluntarily committed to psychiatric institutions in the past five years.
Zherka said that if the measure became part of the Senate bill, it could create difficulties in reconciling the legislation with the House version.
"We hope that even some supporters [of gun rights] . . . would oppose it in this instance because it's an amendment to a D.C. voting rights bill. That's our hope," Zherka said.
The Senate easily defeated another amendment, which would have allowed D.C. residents to pay no federal income taxes. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) said he offered it in the spirit of "no taxation without representation." It got seven votes.
"On behalf of what I would describe as the patriotic citizens of the District of Columbia, I would say this amendment makes a point. But it's not a sound or fair one," Lieberman said, adding that D.C. residents weren't looking for a "free ride."
A similar amendment, offered in the House, was ruled not germane to the legislation.
In the House, as in the Senate, much of the day's debate revolved around whether the bill is constitutional.
Rep. Lamar Smith (Tex.), the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said the Constitution states that House members should be chosen by the "people of the several states."
"Since D.C. is not a state, it cannot have a voting member in the House," he said.
Supporters of the measure pointed to a different part of the Constitution, the "District clause," which gives Congress sweeping power over Washington -- including, they contended, the ability to give it a House representative.
They also said the District is treated as a state for many legal purposes, such as interstate commerce and taxation.
Even the bill's most ardent supporters, however, say the measure will probably face a challenge that could go to the Supreme Court. Legal scholars are divided over its constitutionality.
Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), the committee's chairman, said at the hearing that the bill was "an attempt to correct a 200-year-old injustice -- the disenfranchisement of what has now grown to be over half a million Americans living in the nation's capital."
The bill easily survived a procedural motion in the Senate challenging its constitutionality.
The legislation will face more tests in that body today.
Among them is an amendment that would cede much of the District to Maryland.
Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) said that amendment would allow D.C. residents to have congressional representation as inhabitants of Maryland. The change would be constitutional and could be made quickly, he said, giving District residents the advantages of statehood "without creating a city-state that would further skew representation in the Senate."
The bill doesn't provide senators for the District. But some Republicans have expressed concern that the legislation would lead to such an outcome, boosting Democratic representation in that body.
Maryland and D.C. officials have been cool to the idea of annexing the District.
Another amendment, offered by Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), would allow people to carry lawfully concealed weapons across state lines.
Yet another amendment would bar the Federal Communications Commission from reestablishing rules that provide equal time for opposing viewpoints on controversial issues.