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Senate Passes D.C. Voting Rights Act

Updated: 6:54 p.m.

The Senate passed the District of Columbia House Voting Rights Act on Thursday, 61-37, marking the first time in 30 years the chamber has passed a measure to give the city representation in Congress.

Voting rights advocates celebrated their hard-fought victory, with a somewhat-emotional Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) telling reporters that “winning the Senate is like winning the lottery.”

“I feel like I stood in the shoes of District residents who have lived without the vote and who have died without the vote,” she said. “For me, this is an historical occasion precisely because there were so many who gave so much but cannot be here today. I salute them.”

The vote marked the first time in three decades that the chamber has passed a measure granting Congressional representation to District residents, who are now only represented by a delegate who can vote in committee but not on the floor.

Congress passed a constitutional amendment in 1978 to give the city full representation in both chambers. It ultimately failed because not enough states ratified it.

The voting rights act is more limited: It grants just one voting Representative to the Democratic-heavy District, along with an extra seat for Republican-leaning Utah. Utah narrowly missed getting an additional seat in the 2000 Census.

With the bill’s passage in the Senate, voting rights advocates will now turn their attention to the House, which is set to vote on its version of the bill next week. It is expected to pass there easily, after which the bill will go to a House-Senate conference committee.

Thursday’s excitement was tainted with some anger over an amendment attached to the bill that would overturn most of the city’s gun safety laws. Introduced by Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), it passed easily, with a tally of 62-36, to the dismay of District officials.

The amendment highlighted one of the ironies associated with the voting rights act: Though it would give the city a voting representative, it does nothing to change the fact that Congress has the last say on the District’s budget and legislation.

Every bill that passes the city council doesn’t go into effect until after a review period, during which Congress can overturn or change it.

At a press conference celebrating the victory, Norton scolded reporters for “spoiling” the moment with questions on the amendment.

“We’re not going to devote more of this press conference to a part of the bill which is of no significance as far as we are concerned,” she said, adding that talk of the amendment will “mislead the residents of the District about what has been accomplished today.”

But Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) hinted that the amendment could be stripped away during conference, adding that he considered it an “unnatural appendage” to the voting rights bill.

“Let’s celebrate this victory today, and when we get to conference,” everything will be hashed out, he said.

Ilir Zherka, executive director of voting rights group DC Vote, emphasized that there would be other opportunities like the conference to remove the amendment and said he was relieved it didn’t derail the bill’s passage.

But he also expressed anger that some Senators seemed to view the bill as “a free-for-all” by piling on unrelated amendments.

“Unfortunately, the District is treated like that on a regular basis,” he said. “The vote today is just another illustration of how Congress continues to abuse the city.”

For opponents of the bill, however, the amendment was the bright spot in a piece of legislation that they argue is unconstitutional. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called the bill unconstitutional, pointing out a section of the Constitution that specifies that Representatives are elected by the “people of the several states.” Supporters of the bill argue that the District clause of the Constitution overrides that by giving Congress wide-reaching authority over the city.

Such debate over the bill’s constitutionality ensure a court fight if it passes Congress and is signed into law, as expected, by President Barack Obama.

In a statement Thursday, McConnell, like many of his Republican colleagues, suggested a constitutional amendment or the city’s retrocession back into Maryland.

“The bottom line is this: Any proposal to secure the right to vote must honor the Constitution, which Lincoln called the ‘only safeguard of our liberties.’ Anything less would violate the oath we’ve sworn to uphold, and would guarantee a challenge in the courts that would only further prolong this debate,” he said. “The better way is the surer way — and that’s the constitutional way.”

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