Push for Gun Amendment Leaves D.C. Vote Bill Stalled, Supporters With No Clear Plan

Members of the DC. Council stood on the steps of city hall to condemn the gun amendment that was added to the D.C. Voting Rights bill.Video by Hamil Harris/The Washington Post
By David Nakamura and Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, March 5, 2009

The push to give the District its first full vote in the U.S. House of Representatives, once seemingly on the cusp of legislative approval, stalled indefinitely yesterday as key supporters offered no timetable or strategy for scheduling the D.C. vote bill, which House leaders pulled back this week.

In an afternoon conference call with city officials, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said he did not have enough votes to bring the bill to the floor without the possibility of amendments, according to sources with knowledge of the discussion.

"We weren't confident the votes would be there," said a senior House aide who spoke on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to discuss the matter.

Hoyer put the bill on hold Tuesday after learning that the National Rifle Association was urging its members to use a procedural maneuver to press for amendments that would repeal many of the city's gun laws.

By the end of the call, the parties, including Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) and D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D), agreed to lobby specific legislators whose support is deemed critical. Additionally, House leaders plan to mention the dilemma to President Obama, who during the campaign told Fenty that he supported D.C. voting rights, said the sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the call was private.

But the group emerged with no clear map for overcoming the unexpected obstacles.

The vote was postponed "to allow more time for discussion on outstanding matters," Hoyer said in a statement, adding that he will push for a vote "as soon as possible." His spokeswoman, Stephanie Lundberg, said later: "Discussions are underway about how to move forward. Our hope is to do so in the near future."

Norton said she advised Hoyer not to rush the bill back onto the House floor. She suggested it could be reintroduced next week, adding that she is composing a "frank letter" to conservative Democrats, who she fears might be intimidated by the NRA. That organization had indicated that it might keep score on which Congress members voted to bring the D.C. vote legislation to the floor without the possibility of amendments, such as the gun provision.

"There are other members who are also working together on a counter-strategy," Norton said. "I outlined in the conference call about how I was going to speak to my colleagues. The long and short of it is that there is some push-back here. There's a lot of strategizing and thinking about what would work and what would not."

Fenty's spokeswoman, Mafara Hobson, declined to answer specific questions about what strategy he favors.

"The Mayor is currently in the process of talking with Hill leaders and other key stakeholders to determine the best course of action going forward," she wrote in an e-mail.

The gun control complications have vexed voting rights backers. They had felt confident about the prospects of the bill in a Congress with a solid Democratic majority. The bill would grant the predominantly Democratic District a House seat and a seat for the next state in line to receive one -- for the next few years, majority-Republican Utah. But a similar measure was approved in the Senate last week only after legislators attached a rider that would abolish most of the city's gun laws. Although city officials initially hoped that the Senate's amendment could be removed once the House passed the voting rights bill, the problems in the House have dimmed those prospects.

The U.S. Supreme Court overturned the District's longtime ban on handguns last year, and city leaders have since enacted new regulations for gun owners. But opponents say they are too cumbersome and time-consuming.

Chris W. Cox, the NRA's chief lobbyist, said that because the Senate elected to use the bill to address the city's gun control laws, the NRA will "continue to work with both Democrats and Republicans to restore the Second Amendment rights to lawful residents of the District of Columbia."

District leaders have chastised Congress for failing to vote on the merits of the voting rights bill without amendments and questioned whether the city should accept a House seat if its gun control laws are weakened.

"Obviously, we're deeply concerned about this price," said Gray, the council chairman. "This is a very steep price to pay for a right that should have no price."

Joshua Horwitz, executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, suggested that voting rights advocates might be forced to hold off on the bill and return with a new strategy next year.

"This is a real conundrum. There are no easy answers here," he said. "It may be that we have to rethink how we got in this situation, even wait until next year for another opportunity. I don't think it's absolutely done in the House yet, but it will take a lot of creative thinking."

Staff writer Mary Beth Sheridan contributed to this report.

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