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Free at Last — to Lobby for a Full Vote on Capitol Hill

Washington, D.C., voting rights advocates expect to be able to more openly lobby for representation in the House next year, using money from the District budget.

A step forward came Tuesday, when the D.C. Council approved a $500,000 budget for DC Vote, an advocacy group that heads up the effort to grant the city a full vote in the House.

Of course, the city’s fiscal 2009 budget still has to pass Congress and the actual money isn’t new or surprising — the nonprofit has received two such appropriations since 2006.

But for the first time, the group will likely be able to use the money to actually lobby its cause rather than just lecture on the unbiased facts. That’s because Congress is expected to jettison a rider that in the past has prohibited the use of city funds to lobby for full representation in Congress.

That will mean a slightly different marketing approach, since radio and print advertisements are paid for with D.C. funds.

“The call to action used to be: ‘Visit our Web site. Learn more. Join us,” said Ilir Zherka, DC Vote’s executive director. “In the future, it will [sometimes] be: ‘This is a problem. Contact your Senator. Ask him or her to support D.C. voting rights.’”

DC Vote already lobbies with some of the approximately $1.2 million it gets annually from private donors and other grants. But it has to be careful to separate those efforts from the campaign waged with city funds.

The group’s current focus is on a bill that grants the district a full-voting Member of Congress. The bill also gives a seat to Utah, offsetting the likely Democratic-held D.C. seat with a likely Republican-held Utah seat.

That bill passed the House in April 2007 but stalled in the Senate in September because it received only 57 votes, not the 60 needed to overcome a filibuster.

Since then, DC Vote has traveled to several targeted states, such as New Hampshire, Montana and Oregon, talking to the constituents of Members who voted against the bill. They hope to get the three needed votes and bring the bill back to the Senate floor before the end of the session.

But the restriction on lobbying has somewhat stymied their efforts, Zherka said. The group uses the city funds for many of the trips, he said — and thus officials are unable to even tell voters how to help the cause.

“The rider’s unconscionable,” Zherka said. “It’s just unconscionable that the Congress of the United States has said to the District, ‘You cannot use your legal funds to lobby for representation.’”

Instead of telling voters to write to their Member, for example, DC Vote officials are limited to giving out their Web site address.

“That’s a multistep process,” Zherka said. “That basically makes it harder for people to help us.”

But Zherka said the rider is also a rallying point. When the group tells voters that Congress has put restrictions on the District’s budget, they “react physically,” he said. “They know it’s wrong.”

Congress actually removed the rider about a year ago, but D.C. had already passed a fiscal 2008 budget request that did not include the $500,000 appropriation. President Bush has put the rider back into his proposed budget, but it’s not expected to pass Congress.

Rep. José Serrano (D-N.Y.), who heads the Appropriations subcommittee that handles the district budget, says he intends to remove it.

“In last year’s Financial Services and General Government appropriations bill, I took out the prohibition on the use of local funds for a DC Vote campaign,” he said in a statement. “I plan to do the same in the bill this year.”

Although the change will allow DC Vote to use more money for lobbying, the group said it didn’t intend to use much of the city money for that purpose. Right now, the group only uses 8 percent of its non-city funds for lobbying — about 12 percent less than it is allowed under its nonprofit status.

Instead, the group will simply be able to act more fluidly, Zherka said.

Right now, DC Vote can take trips that include active lobbying only if they completely pay for it out of non-city funds — which is a difficult task.

Zherka is on one of those rare lobbying trips this week, gathering support in Mississippi to convince Republican Sens. Thad Cochran and Roger Wicker to support the D.C. voting rights bill.

For most of the group’s recent push, however, trips to targeted Senators’ states have been paid for by the city and thus limited to public awareness. Of course, other groups, such as the League of Women Voters and Common Cause, have openly lobbied. And D.C. law and lobby firm Patton Boggs has pushed the issue pro bono.

Still, D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) said it was frustrating not to be able to have restriction-free funding now, when voting rights advocates need it most. “It would be very anticlimactic for us to only get the money in October,” she said, “because I’m not sure where the bill would be.”

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