D.C. Council members are preparing to endorse a congressional proposal to give the city a vote in the House of Representatives -- even if it means adding a seat for Utah at the same time.
Twelve members signed on to a non-binding, sense-of-the-council resolution Friday that is scheduled to come up for a May 19 public hearing and a June 1 vote.
It would put District elected leaders on record as supporting a proposal by Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) to temporarily expand the House by two seats by adding a voting representative for the nation's capital and another seat for Utah. Utah was next in line to gain another member after the 2000 U.S. Census.
Under the Davis plan, the House would revert to its current size, 435 seats, after the 2010 census and redistricting, but the District would keep its voting member.
If approved, council members said, the District resolution would mark the first time the council endorsed a suffrage plan short of statehood or of full congressional voting representation as a practical first step since a proposed U.S. constitutional amendment went down to defeat in 1985. The amendment would have given the District a vote in the House and two votes in the Senate, but it failed to win ratification from three-fourths of the 50 states.
Davis's proposal is not expected to pass Congress this year. The ability of Congress to legislate a vote for the District when the U.S. Constitution appears to reserve representation for the states is untested. Still, District leaders say they want to be heard on the question.
"The reality that voting representation in Congress is likely to be achieved only though stages should not be allowed to impair an opportunity for the people of the District to achieve what in terms of their lives would be a substantial, meaningful and historic advancement toward full voting representation," the resolution states.
It goes on to state that achieving a House vote "in the near-term should be strongly supported as a way station and interim step to fulfillment of the aspirations of all people of the District for full voting representation in Congress."
The resolution is sponsored by Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), head of the council's voting rights committee, and is supported by all members except Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4), who said the District should not settle for less than full representation.
The statement of support was advocated by Ray Browne (D), the District's unpaid, locally elected statehood lobbyist, or "shadow" U.S. representative.
Browne has taken on national Democratic Party orthodoxy in the U.S. House, where party leaders say they object to negotiating for a congressional vote that should belong to 570,000 District residents by right.
The problem is that the District, which is overwhelmingly Democratic, and Utah, which is overwhelmingly Republican, have become linked in partisan calculations over the issue, as framed by Davis. His backers say any deal giving the District a vote in Congress will get Republican support only if it carries a sweetener for the GOP.
House Democrats object to giving away at least one seat to the GOP majority -- at a time when Republican control hangs on a 12-vote margin -- and another vote in the Electoral College, which selects the president, however temporarily.
"Republicans ought to stop playing politics on this issue. They ought to be for having an elected D.C. representative in Congress, and not use this as a pretext to enhance their numbers in the House, where it's closely divided," said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), ranking minority member on the House Government Reform Committee, which Davis chairs.
Browne said the Davis proposal has begun to expose a divergence of interests between the overwhelmingly Democratic District of Columbia and the party that for decades has led the drive for civil rights and District representation.
"People need to understand that it's not a significant point, Utah having a seat for a couple years, or Republicans another electoral vote in the 2008 election. Those things pale by comparison to the interests of the citizens of the District," said Browne. "At the end of the day, we still represent District voters."
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), the city's nonvoting member of Congress, would almost certainly be elected to the seat from Washington if she wanted it, but she said she is "not prepared to endorse [the Davis proposal] yet."
Norton said certain problems have to be "worked out." For example, House Democrats want to ensure that the district of the sole Democrat now elected from Utah, Rep. Jim Matheson, would not be redrawn to make it harder for him to win. Norton also wants to be sure that any legislation would not foreclose District aspirations for two senators.
Still, Norton acknowledged the practicality of Davis's proposal.
She noted that the tradeoff between the District and Utah has historical precedence. "My position is that . . . going back to the 19th century, when slave states couldn't get in without free states, there may well be something to be said . . . [for] symmetry. It's the only way Congress has been able to move ahead," Norton said. "But I would have to be very clear that this was a step toward full voting rights."
Davis, who declined to comment publicly, has scheduled a June 23 House committee hearing on his proposal, as well as on a bill by Norton calling for full congressional representation, and bills by two other Republican members that would allow District citizens to participate as Maryland residents in congressional and presidential elections.