For D.C. voting rights, window appears closed

By Ben Pershing
Sunday, November 28, 2010

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. But 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.

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