D.C. voting rights activists vowed yesterday to turn up international pressure on Washington, after they persuaded an organization emblematic of the Cold War human rights struggle to call for full congressional representation for District residents.
The recommendation approved by the parliamentary assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe is not legally binding. But voting rights activists noted that the organization carries important symbolic weight. It grew out of the Helsinki process in which Western countries pressed communist Soviet-bloc nations to honor human rights.
"I do believe even the United States of America can be embarrassed into doing the right thing," Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), the District's nonvoting House member, said at a news conference at the conclusion of the five-day OSCE meeting.
If the U.S. government was embarrassed by the recommendation, however, it was not showing it. At the White House, spokesman Ken Lisaius declined to comment on the measure but said no minds had been changed on the issue of representation for District residents.
"The president supports keeping the existing constitutional rules in place," Lisaius said, noting that the Constitution creates a special status for the District, as the seat of federal power, and does not give it the same voting power in Congress as the states.
The State Department declined comment on the OSCE recommendation, with diplomats saying it was up to Congress to decide on the District's representation. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice addressed the OSCE meeting's opening session Friday, saying she wanted to "reaffirm President Bush's deep commitment to the OSCE and to its important work in advancing freedom."
The measure on the D.C. vote was one of numerous recommendations in a declaration approved yesterday by more than 260 legislators from OSCE countries who were holding their annual meeting in Washington. The session drew delegates from 51 countries in Europe, the former Soviet Union and North America to discuss matters including terrorism and human trafficking. The measure on the District's congressional representation, sponsored by Norton, was included in the final document after it was approved in a committee hearing Saturday.
Timothy Cooper, a D.C. voting rights proponent, said activists planned to build on the victory at the OSCE parliamentary assembly by asking for a hearing before the U.S. Helsinki Commission, a U.S. government agency that monitors compliance with OSCE commitments.
The U.S. Helsinki Commission is led by Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.), who share an interest in human rights issues. Both were members of the U.S. delegation that approved the D.C. voting rights measure.
"We've created a segue between the international community and the U.S. Congress," Cooper said.
Neither Brownback nor Smith was available for comment on the issue, spokesmen said yesterday. Cooper said Smith was noncommittal when asked about holding a U.S. Helsinki Commission hearing.
Several proposals for granting broader representation for District residents have been under consideration in Congress. One would add a voting House member for the heavily Democratic District and one for Utah, which overwhelmingly supported Bush in the last election. Another would allow D.C. residents to vote for a representative in Maryland.
Fred Turner, a spokesman for Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (D-Fla.), who was in the 12-member U.S. delegation to this weekend's meeting, said a lot of work remained on the voting rights issue. But, he said, if Norton "can put together a coalition of Democrats and sympathetic Republicans, maybe this will move the ball forward."
Cooper said his plans don't stop with the U.S. Helsinki Commission. He intends to press foreign ministers of the OSCE, who are scheduled to meet in December in Slovenia, to consider the D.C. vote issue.
"That is geopolitical pressure of the highest magnitude," he said.