Full voting membership in Congress for the District of Columbia, an issue that has intermittently emerged and faded for 89 years, was endorsed unanimously yesterday by the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights.
The action was the first step in a peril-strewb path toward an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that, if approved, would give Washington three and possibly four members of Congress with full voting rights.
Such an amendment requires approval by two-thirds of both the House and the Senate and three-fourths, or 36, of the 50 state legislatures.
Rep. Don Edwards (D-Calif.), the subcommittee chairman and chief sponsor of the measure, said its next test, before the full Judiciary Committee, is expected in January.
A similar but not indentical measure was approved by the committee in 1975 but fell 45 votes short of approval in the House early last year.
Del. Walter E. Fauntroy (D-D.C.) said backers of the mearsure are banking on new and generally more liberal members of the House and newly won support from President Carter to put the measure across this time.
The proposal has never been acted on in the Senate, which is regarded as posing tougher challenge because it would enlarge that exclusive 100-member body, with its clubby atmosphere. However, supporters there have said the measure has a fighting chance of approval.
The new measure would grant the District of Columbia two seats in the Senate, the same as each state, and the same representation in the House of Representatives as a state with the same population - probably two. Washington has been represented on Capitol Hill since 1971 by Fauntroy, who has no vote.
The measure approved yesterday also would permit the District of Columbia to join ofr the first time in the process of ratifying amendments to the Constitution, new restricted to the states.
It also would remove the limit of three votes that the city has been permitted to cast since 1961 in the Electoral College, which formally chooses the President after the general election every four years. The city's new electoral vote at the outset probably would four.
In approving the measure yesterday, the subcommittee rejected suggestions that the Distirct of Columbia be retroceded - or given back - to Maryland, from which it was carved in 1800.
The subcommittee also beat back five amendments proposed by Rep. E. Caldwell Butler (R-Va.), a foe of the bill in 1975 who in the end yesterday joined in its approval.
Butler warned, however, that he has not given up on amendments that would eliminate the Senate seats, the city's role in amending the Constitution and the enlargement of the District of Columbia's vote in the Electoral College.
Butler also sought unsuccessfully to spell out whether a state legislature that has voted to ratify the amending has a right to ratify the amendment has a right to change its position and rescind the approval. He offered two amendements - one that a state has such a right, another that it lacks such a right - but both failed.
The right of a state to recind a vote to ratify has been raised in connection with the drive to ratify the Equal Rights Amendement.
Thirty-five of the needed 38 legislatures have approved the ERA, but two - Nebraska and Tennessee - have voted to recind their actions. The legality of such moves remains uncertain, and the same subcommittee that approved the D.C. measure yesterday will begin hearings on the ERA ratification situation today.
Yesterday's session was a match between lawmakers who supported the full measure because, in Edwards' words, "the prople of Washington want full representation," and those led by Butler, who voiced fear that the city's desires are excessive and foredoomed to failure.
Edwards was joined by Reps. Robert F. Drinan (D-Mass.) and Robert McClory (R-III.) in all votes against Butler's amendments. Reps. Harold L. Volkmer (D-Calif.) each supported one or more of Butler's proposals, but favored the measure in the final vote for approval.
Ratification of the measure by 38 states would remedy a lack of voting representation that has existed since 1800, when the nation's capital was carved out of Maryland and Virginia. The Virginia portion - now Arlington County and most of Alexandria - was returned to that state in 1846.
In 1888, when Grover Cleveland occupied the White House, a Washington civic group made the first of numerous attempts since then to gain voting representation for the District of Columbia in Congress. All have failed in the 89 years since.