Congressional leaders shelve D.C. voting rights bill

By Ann E. Marimow and Ben Pershing
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The decision by congressional leaders Tuesday to shelve a D.C. voting rights bill, just days after announcing plans to move ahead, scuttles what supporters say was the best opportunity in a generation to give the District a voting seat in the House of Representatives.

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) abandoned the long-sought legislation with the blessing of Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), who had pushed for the measure. Hoyer said they pulled the bill because of an amendment that would have repealed most of the District's gun-control laws and had caused deep divisions among city leaders, including two Democratic mayoral rivals, incumbent Adrian M. Fenty and D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray.

"The price was too high," Hoyer explained during a news briefing in which he said he was "profoundly disappointed" at "his inability to get this legislation passed."

It was an extraordinary reversal that came less than a week after Hoyer said he would revive the legislation on the House floor as early as Wednesday in spite of the gun language. Norton said she asked Hoyer to change course when she learned that gun-rights advocates were seeking to further loosen the city's firearms laws.

Norton said the "egregious changes" by Reps. Travis Childers (D-Miss.) and Mark Souder (R-Ind.) would "directly proliferate guns throughout the District" in addition to eroding support for the bill among liberal Democrats, particularly in the Senate. Norton said that legislation would have restricted the District from prohibiting concealed or openly carried firearms.

A year ago, the Senate passed voting rights legislation for the first time in three decades, but lawmakers attached language that would have limited the D.C. Council's ability to enact new gun laws and scrapped most of the existing ones. The bill stalled in the House when it became clear that it would be difficult to stop the gun amendment.

Under the voting-rights measure, favored by more than eight in 10 Washingtonians, according to a recent Washington Post poll, the House would add two seats. One would go to the overwhelmingly Democratic District and the other, temporarily, to Republican-leaning Utah until the completion of the 2010 Census.

Former representative Thomas M. Davis III, the Virginia Republican who drafted the original bill, said the measure is "absolutely dead" if it does not come up for a vote before the next Congress. The Democratic majority could narrow after the November elections, and the political compromise with Utah could unwind with the reapportionment of House seats based on the census.

Sen. Benjamin L.Cardin (D-Md.) said proponents would "continue the fight," but he expressed frustration that the issue was stuck yet again. "This was a compromise of a compromise, and then we had another compromise put on top of it," Cardin said. "This was a very modest proposal, and if you can't get this modest proposal moving forward, I don't know what it means in the short term."

Every indication was that the bill would reach the House floor this week. At Hoyer's news conference Tuesday, reporters were given a schedule saying the vote would occur. Minutes later, Hoyer said the measure had been pulled.

House Democratic leaders had planned an elaborate floor strategy that would have enabled the legislation to pass without forcing any liberal lawmakers to vote in favor of the gun-rights language they disliked.

Under the plan, the House would have voted on three separate bills -- one creating the new House seats, one changing the District's gun laws and one dealing with the cost of the measure -- that would have been automatically combined into one bill once the three had passed.

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