Conservatives' NRA Worries Targeted

By David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 6, 2009

D.C. vote supporters said yesterday that they are targeting more than 60 conservative congressional Democrats in hopes of securing enough support to bring the voting rights legislation to the House floor without fear that opponents would be able to add amendments to weaken the city's gun-control laws.

The task of convincing these lawmakers, who come from places with a strong tradition of gun rights, that they should not fear repercussions if they support the voting rights bill without gun amendments could be time-consuming and difficult, D.C. vote backers said. Ilir Zherka, executive director of DC Vote, a lobbying group, said the effort would take at least another week.

Supporters continued to be hard-pressed to predict when the voting rights bill, pulled from consideration Tuesday by House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), would reemerge.

"This is hard, man," said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), who met yesterday with House allies to go over the list of the conservative members they intend to target. "It's close analytical work, a lot like playing chess."

The vote bill would give the majority Democratic District its first full vote in the House and add another for Republican-leaning Utah for political balance. A similar measure was approved by the Senate last week only after an amendment was added that would strip most of the city's gun-control laws.

D.C. leaders hoped that provision would not be included in the House version, but the National Rifle Association indicated this week that it might keep track of which House members voted in favor of bringing the voting rights bill to the floor without the possibility of amendments. Those members would be judged by the NRA as opposing gun rights, a position that could be unpopular in many of their home jurisdictions.

An NRA spokesman would not comment last night.

House leaders have concluded that they have 190 solid votes in favor of blocking all amendments, 28 fewer than necessary for approval, sources with knowledge of strategy discussions said. To round up enough support, the voting rights supporters will target the group of more than 60 members from conservative areas.

Norton said she and her allies discussed a list of Democrats "to size up who was genuinely at risk [of repercussions from the NRA] and who was not. I can report to you going through the list that many are not at risk."

Norton's staff workers reported that she was encouraged after a brief conversation with Rep. Dennis Cardoza (D-Calif.), one of the leaders of the Blue Dog Democrats, a group of moderate- and conservative-leaning members.

Cardoza said that he supports the NRA's position that D.C. residents should have the right to own guns without cumbersome restrictions but added that he also supports the voting rights bill.

"Maybe we pass the gun bill first," he said. "I'll leave that to others [to decide]. It's going to take some creative gymnastics."

Despite the liberal, coastal leanings of their leadership team, House Democrats have long been divided on gun rights, with dozens of veterans, such as Reps. John D. Dingell (Mich.) and James L. Oberstar (Minn.), hailing from exurban or rural districts where hunting -- and membership in the NRA -- was ingrained in the culture.

But the Democratic caucus has grown increasingly more conservative, particularly on gun rights, through political success the past two elections. The caucus secured an additional 54 seats since 2006, coming from districts largely in rural, conservative-leaning regions.

The most recent vote on gun rights -- in September, on legislation that ratified the Supreme Court's decision that overturned the District's ban on handguns -- demonstrated the increasing support for weapons-branding Democrats. Of the 266 votes in favor of the legislation, 181 Republicans were joined by 85 Democrats.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) declined to predict when the House would move the voting rights legislation. "I would hope that at the end of the day, we will be able to have a voting rights bill for the District of Columbia, in light of all those concerns that members have to address as they consider their vote," she said.

While announcing the House schedule for next week in a floor address yesterday, Hoyer said he hoped to be able to consider the voting rights legislation, a spokeswoman said.

Zherka said his group is asking conservative Democrats what they object to in the current D.C. gun laws, which after the Supreme Court's decision were revised to be less restrictive.

Staff writers Paul Kane and Nikita Stewart contributed to this report.

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