Congressional leaders shelve D.C. voting rights bill

By Ann E. Marimow and Ben Pershing
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, April 21, 2010; B01

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 Hoyer said they pulled the bill because of an amendment that would have repealed most of the District's gun-control laws and had caused deep divisions among city leaders, including two Democratic mayoral rivals, incumbent Adrian M. Fenty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.

But even if that strategy had ameliorated the complaints of many Democrats in the House, the bill faced hurdles in the Senate. Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), a leading proponent of the Senate-passed bill, vowed to oppose the House version because it would give his state an at-large congressional seat rather than allowing Utah leaders to create the new district's boundaries.

Some Democrats in the Senate were also uncomfortable with the gun language. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), a key gun-control supporter, said she would vote against a bill that included the firearms amendment. She said in a statement that the amendment would make the District "much less safe, and the opportunity for criminals, mentally unstable persons and juveniles to purchase weapons will increase dramatically."

After fiercely opposing the Senate gun language last year, Norton softened her position and announced last week that she was willing to accept a weakening of the District's gun-control laws if it meant seizing a fleeting opportunity that would give the District full voting rights in Congress. That strategy splintered a coalition of national and local organizations, in addition to elected officials.

Fenty backed Norton's approach, but Gray and the council unanimously passed a resolution Tuesday reaffirming their opposition to the gun language.

Norton said she retrenched this week after reviewing the updated gun language that she received Friday night. Norton said she and the Democratic leadership were "shocked" by the changes.

Childers and Souder crafted the gun language in response to new gun laws passed by the D.C. Council after the landmark Supreme Court decision in 2008. Childers, in a statement, urged the House leadership to move forward with the bipartisan legislation to "end D.C.'s unconstitutional gun ban."

Andrew Arulanandam, a spokesman for the National Rifle Association, said the organization is trying to ensure that the District complies with the court ruling because the council and Fenty have "thumbed their nose at the Supreme Court" with the new laws.

A federal judge recently upheld the District's new gun laws, and Norton and voting rights advocates said Tuesday that they would regroup and develop new strategies for defeating the gun language and reviving a voting rights bill.

As Hoyer was making his announcement Tuesday, D.C. Council members at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue were decrying the gun amendment during a breakfast meeting. They called it an infringement on the city's limited powers of self-government and spoke passionately about District residents who have died from gun violence, including the four teenagers killed in a drive-by shooting on South Capitol Street last month.

"I've got to look people in the face, and when they look back at me, I want them to respect me," Gray said. "I honestly believe they will not respect me when they hear I traded their safety for a vote" in Congress.

Staff writer Tim Craig contributed to this report.

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