By Mary Beth Sheridan and Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, February 27, 2009
The Senate passed a bill yesterday that would give the District a voting seat in the House of Representatives, but lawmakers attached language strongly opposed by city leaders that strips most local gun-control laws.
The gun amendment complicates the D.C. vote bill's passage into law, because the legislation will have to be reconciled with a companion bill in the House with no gun provisions that is expected to be approved next week. Some D.C. officials said it was ironic that the Senate bill granted the city full representation in the House while also overruling the District's decisions on a key local issue.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), the city's nonvoting House delegate, said she was overjoyed at the passage of the voting-rights bill. She has fought an uphill battle for years for District residents to have a greater voice in Congress.
"I stand in the shoes of residents of the city who have lived without the vote and died without the vote," she said after emerging from the Senate floor, where she anxiously watched the vote. The bill squeaked past the 60-vote threshold it needed to pass, under a bipartisan agreement that sped up the process. Six Republicans voted "aye" to produce a 61 to 37 result.
Norton predicted that the bill would clear the House easily, setting up a closed-door meeting between negotiators from both chambers who will have to decide what to do about the gun language.
The Maryland and Virginia senators voted for the measure.
Norton and D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) were tight-lipped about potential problems raised by the gun issue, apparently seeking to avoid antagonizing senators over an amendment that won wide support.
Proponents of the bill differed on how much of an obstacle the gun amendment would be.
"I personally believe that's not going to be an overwhelming issue," said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), a co-sponsor of the bill. But Ilir Zherka, executive director of DC Vote, an advocacy group, said, "It's going to cause problems."
Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), another co-sponsor who is expected to be involved in the negotiations over the bill's outcome, said it was too early to know how the issue would play out.
The D.C. vote bill is a political compromise that would permanently expand the House by two seats. One would be for the overwhelmingly Democratic District, while the other would go in the short term to Republican-leaning Utah. After 2011, that seat would go to whichever state is next in line to pick up a representative based on the Census.
The gun amendment cast a cloud of uncertainty over what voting-rights supporters had hoped would be a major triumph. A similar bill had died two years ago after falling three votes short in the Senate.
This time, the bill has more backers in the Senate and House, as well as a new president, Barack Obama, who is likely to sign it. Even if it becomes law, though, the bill probably will face a legal challenge that could go to the Supreme Court.
While mindful of the obstacles ahead, Fenty was optimistic. "This day represents great momentum toward full voting rights," he said.
The gun amendment is similar to a sweeping measure approved by the House last year that was fought by the D.C. government. It would remove the city's gun-registration requirements, limit its authority to restrict firearms and repeal the District's ban on semiautomatic guns.
"The Senate action is of huge concern," said Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), chairman of the D.C. Council's Public Safety Commission. He and council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) sent letters to Lieberman and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) yesterday opposing any gun amendments. "It strips our authority. The irony here is that on one hand they vote to give us voting representation, but on the other hand they strip any local representation in regards to our gun laws."
On the Senate floor, lawmakers passionately debated the gun measure. "It's reckless; it's irresponsible; it will lead to more violence," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).
The sponsor of the amendment, Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), said his goal was "to remove the tremendous barriers and burdens on law-abiding citizens" in the District who were seeking to "protect themselves in their own homes."
He pointed to a chart showing the D.C. homicide rate over the years. "We want the law-abiding citizens to have the arms, not just the criminals," he said. Ensign said the D.C. government hadn't gone far enough in reforming its gun laws since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the city's handgun ban last year.
Ensign's measure may signal that he is the new go-to senator for gun rights groups such as the National Rifle Association. For years, their champion was Larry Craig, who retired last month.
First elected to Congress in the GOP's revolutionary wave of 1994, Ensign comes from a family that ran casinos in Las Vegas. He won the seat of a retiring Senate Democrat in 2000 and has climbed the ladder of lower-level Republican leadership in recent years.
Ensign's amendment passed 62 to 36, drawing the support of almost all Republicans and several Democrats from pro-gun states -- including Virginia's Mark Warner and Jim Webb. Maryland Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Benjamin L. Cardin, both Democrats, voted against the measure.
The voting-rights bill was the first such measure to pass the Senate since 1978, when Congress approved a constitutional amendment that would have given the District a House representative and two senators. That amendment failed to win enough support from the states.
Opponents of the current bill said it violated the constitutional provision that House representatives should be chosen by the "people of the several states." Since the District is not a state, its inhabitants don't qualify for representation, they said.
"The Constitution is short because its authors wanted it to be clear," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.). He added: "It could not have been more so" on the issue of House representation.
Supporters argue that Congress had the power to give the District a House seat under the Constitution's "District clause," which gives it broad authority over the city. They noted that the District is frequently treated as a state for such matters as taxation and interstate commerce.
Norton paced at the back of the Senate floor as the votes trickled in yesterday. As voting was ending, she still had not spotted a key Republican backer of the bill, Sen. George V. Voinovich (Ohio). "I wanted to know, is he here today? . . . You can never tell what happenstance will occur," she said.
"I was concerned because you always want to be over (60 votes). . . . and the fact we hit 61 is extraordinary, when you consider where we were last time."
Staff writers Paul Kane and David Nakamura contributed to this report.