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For D.C. voting rights, window appears closed

By Ben Pershing
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 27, 2010; 6:38 PM

Advocates for giving the District full voting rights in the House brimmed with confidence four years ago as the Democratic takeover of Congress seemed to move their long-standing goal closer to reality.

Two years later, when President Obama was elected, that confidence turned to near-certainty. "I really can't think of a scenario by which we could fail," Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said in November 2008.

Yet fail they did. House leaders decided this year to pull a voting rights bill from the floor rather than have it coupled with a measure to weaken the District's gun laws.

Now, with Republicans set to take over the House in January, the window to move a voting rights bill appears to have closed, and glum supporters are wondering what - if anything - to do next.

"I think the best shot we had at voting rights was probably last year," said House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), who will serve as minority whip in the next Congress.

"The Republican Party . . . has fought this tooth and nail," Hoyer said. "I don't think that there's much shot that they'll do it this time."

Former representative Tom Davis (Va.), who was the lead Republican supporter of voting rights until he retired in 2008, put the chance of passage in the next Congress at "zero."

"If the Democratic Congress can't do it, you're not going to get a Republican Congress to do it," Davis said, complaining that Democrats missed their best chance this year.

Norton, who has lobbied for a House vote for two decades, said that "we should have been able to get this bill through" in this Congress. However, she declined to be as pessimistic about the future as Hoyer and Davis. She said she hesitated to make any predictions about the new majority's intentions.

"We're trying not to indicate what they're going to do before we have the opportunity to introduce the new mayor to their people," she said.

Republicans won't sort out their committee assignments until December, so it's unclear which lawmakers will have jurisdiction over the District. For now, Norton said she is most interested in arranging a meeting with House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), the incoming speaker, and D.C. Mayor-elect Vincent C. Gray (D).

Boehner has opposed D.C. voting rights in the House, and the math on the GOP side of the aisle does not bode well for the cause.

Last time a voting rights bill came to the House floor, in April 2007, 22 Republicans voted for it. Half of those lawmakers are now out of office, leaving just 11 Republicans in the House who are on record as voting for the idea.

One of the 11 past supporters is Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the incoming chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, who later turned against the bill. He expressed a fear that the District would use it as a stepping stone to getting two senators and, eventually, statehood.

Issa won't say what his committee plans to do in the next Congress, but his spokesman, Frederick Hill, said Issa "wants to still try to work and find a way for the people of D.C. to have voting representation in the House of Representatives."

It's unclear where Rep. Jason Chaffetz (Utah), the current top Republican on the subcommittee on the federal workforce, the Postal Service and the District, will end up, but he said he expected to be "heavily involved" in D.C. matters regardless of how the subcommittee shuffle plays out.

As he has before, Chaffetz said that he thinks granting full voting rights to the District would be unconstitutional and that he would rather have the District retain its current status than adopt Norton's proposals.

"There are other options," Chaffetz said, suggesting - as other congressional Republicans have - that the District undergo "retrocession" to Maryland. He acknowledged that he did not know exactly how such a process would work or whether Maryland would want to take over the District.

That idea is a non-starter to most voting rights advocates on both sides of the D.C.-Maryland border.

"I think the residents of the District of Columbia have no desire to be subsumed into the state of Maryland," Hoyer said. "They are very proud of the fact they are District of Columbia citizens."

Norton said she and other advocates would look closely at the incoming GOP freshmen, particularly to see whether any from swing districts might be persuaded that it would be good politics back home to support D.C. voting rights.

Norton is also waiting for something that could make or break her cause - the results of the 2010 Census.

The last voting rights bill, the brainchild of Davis, was predicated on giving one House seat to the District and one to Republican-leaning Utah, which had just missed out on gaining another seat in the 2000 Census. Now Utah is all-but-assured of winning another seat anyway, meaning the state no longer has a reason to partner with the District.

"What we're doing is considering any other options," Norton said. "Is there any other near-miss [House] seat?"

In theory, the 2010 Census could leave another state frustrated and eager to add a congressional seat by other means. But the state would have to be controlled by Republicans - to ensure that the new seat would be a Republican seat - and amenable to cutting the kind of deal that most Utah leaders were.

And even if such a package deal were available a second time, voting rights could well be derailed again by the debate over the District's gun laws.

"The other thing that's unpredictable at this point is whether [Republicans] will move a gun bill separate and apart from" the voting rights bill, said Ilir Zherka, the executive director of D.C. Vote.

Davis predicted that House Republican leaders would move a stand-alone measure to weaken the city's gun laws. But with Democrats in control of the Senate and the White House, such a measure would likely stall.

Zherka said there are a handful of voting rights supporters left in the upper ranks of the GOP, including Rep. Mike Pence (Ind.), who just stepped down from the party leadership to consider a run for governor or president, and Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.), the incoming chairman of the House Budget Committee.

"We're going to look for as many unusual allies as possible," Zherka said.

Although it's the House that just flipped to Republican control, the Senate might present the larger obstacle to voting rights going forward. Davis said the District had little chance to win unless and until Democrats secure a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.

For now, Davis said, "the chance is gone, I would guess, for 10 years."

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