Deal on D.C. vote in House to be revived on Capitol Hill

By Ann E. Marimow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 15, 2010; B01

Congressional leaders intend to resurrect a D.C. voting rights bill as early as next week, despite opposition from many city leaders to an amendment that would eliminate most of the District's gun-control laws.

The final details of the bill were being worked out Wednesday, but House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said he expects the legislation to clear the House and to include some version of the pro-gun language that has bogged down the measure since last year.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), the city's non-voting House member, and congressional leaders said they are negotiating to weaken the gun amendment language. But Norton said she is unwilling to sacrifice the opportunity to win a long-sought voting seat for the District by insisting on a stand-alone bill.

"This is the best chance we've had to get a House vote for D.C. in my lifetime," Norton said. "Nobody would leave it on the table because it's not at all clear when there will be another chance."

The time is right, Norton and other advocates said, because the bill's prospects could diminish if the Democratic majority narrows after this year's midterm elections and if the release of 2010 Census figures undercuts the legislative deal.

A year ago, the Senate passed a D.C. voting rights bill for the first time since 1978, but lawmakers attached language that would wipe out most local gun laws and restrict the D.C. Council's power to enact new ones. House leaders shelved the legislation when it became clear that it would be difficult to block the gun amendment.

Under the measure, the House would add two members: one to the overwhelmingly Democratic District and the other, temporarily, to Republican-leaning Utah. That seat would then go to the state next in line for a representative based on the 2010 Census.

Last year, many city leaders, including Norton, fiercely opposed loosening the District's gun laws. And on Wednesday, council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) denounced the possibility of a trade-off. "It's wrong, it's undemocratic and it's insulting, and we should not kneel down on our basic principles just to get this bill through," she said. "It's way too bitter a pill that we should be forced to sacrifice our public safety."

A spokeswoman for council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D), who is running for mayor, said he would not support the initiative if it removes the council's right to legislate firearms restrictions. "He believes the majority of our citizens would have our gun laws remain, not be weakened," spokeswoman Doxie McCoy said.

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), however, said he told Norton Wednesday that he would help her move the bill, even if it includes what he considers objectionable gun language. "We've had great momentum on voting rights, and we need to move forward," Fenty said in an interview with NewsChannel 8.

A recent Washington Post poll finds broad support (83 percent) among District residents for legislation that would give the city a full voting member in the House. Support spans differences in race, sex, age and geography, dipping below 80 percent only among conservatives (71 percent) and those in the lowest income and education categories, according to the poll, conducted in January.

Nationally, almost six in 10 respondents said they favor D.C. voting rights legislation in a 2009 Post-ABC poll.

After the legislation stalled last year, Norton relaxed her position and tried to negotiate a compromise that would save sections of local gun laws. But she was unable to get city officials to sign off on a deal. She was criticized privately and publicly last summer for appearing to hold out for unanimity among District leaders.

But in an interview this week, Norton said it had become clear that she would not get a vote on a stand-alone voting rights bill. As important, she said, the strength of the National Rifle Association, particularly among conservative Democrats, made it increasingly likely that the pro-gun lobby would be able to repeal local gun laws with or without a voting rights bill.

Former representative Tom Davis, the Virginia Republican who originally drafted the D.C. vote bill, said the window for passage is closing because Republicans could make gains in the November elections and because the political compromise could deteriorate with the reapportionment of House seats based on the census.

"You're never going to get the perfect bill," Davis said. "This is a one-time opportunity that expires at the end of this Congress."

Ilir Zherka, executive director of nonprofit DC Vote, agreed with Davis. He said that anytime a District-related issue goes to the floor, there are attempts to weaken the city's powers of self-government known as home rule.

"The threat or reality of whatever amendments might be offered are not enough for us to back down," he said. "That can't be a reason for us not to move forward."

Joshua Horwitz, executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, said that if the gun amendment affects new city restrictions passed in response to the landmark 2008 Supreme Court ruling on handgun possession, he expects council members to push back.

"The city deserves a representative in Congress absolutely," Horwitz said. "But they also deserve the right to pass their own laws regarding public safety."

If the measure is successful in the House this time, there are differences with the Senate version that must be reconciled.

The vote also could be complicated by a Justice Department report last year that concluded that the measure is unconstitutional. But Attorney General Eric H. Holder, who supports the effort, obtained a second opinion that the bill could be defended.

First lady Michelle Obama said President Obama backs the bill. In an interview with WRC-TV (Channel 4) news, she said the president "is a supporter of the rights of citizens here in D.C. to have the vote, and I don't think there's much convincing that you have to do there. We just have to get it done."

Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.

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