D.C. Voting Rights Act Passes Judiciary Despite Challenge

Posted March 15, 2007 at 3:36pm

Despite a drawn-out challenge from Republicans, the House Judiciary Committee gave the green light today to a measure that would grant Washington, D.C., its first-ever full House vote.

In a 21-13 vote, the panel approved the District of Columbia House Voting Rights Act, which would grant Democratic-leaning D.C. a full-voting Representative and also give Utah, which just missed gaining another Member after the 2000 Census, an at-large seat that is expected to be won by a Republican.

The bill is expected to be presented on the House floor for a vote next week.

D.C. voting rights supporters called today’s vote a major victory for the effort, but strong Republican opposition might signal that challenges lay ahead for the measure.

While the Oversight and Government Reform Committee approved the bill in a bipartisan 24-5 vote on Tuesday, only two Republicans voted for the measure today: Utah Rep. Chris Cannon and Rep. Mike Pence (Ind.).

And Republicans presented several amendments at the hearing and engaged Democrats in a morning-long debate on the constitutionality of the measure.

Opponents of the measure said the Constitution grants the right to vote in Congress solely to states. They also said granting an at-large seat to Utah is unconstitutional because it goes against the standard of “one man, one vote.”

Arguing that a legal challenge is inevitable if the bill were to become law, ranking member Lamar Smith (R-Texas) introduced an amendment that would require expedited legal review of the bill.

“There is no good reason to prolong judicial investigation of these issues,” Smith said. “The bill is either constitutional or it’s not. Let’s get that resolved.”

The amendment failed in a 15-19 vote.

Perhaps the most vocal opponent at today’s markup was Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), who at one point threatened to introduce up to 43 amendments to the bill to protest granting a House vote to a non-state.

Members voted on only one of the Gohmert amendments. That measure would have made certain military installations Congressional districts.

The amendment didn’t pass (only three Members voted for it), but Gohmert said he put it forth to “make a strong constitutional point.”

The panel also took up an amendment introduced by Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) that would have the bill take effect in the 113th Congress. The measure, which failed, was based on another Gohmert amendment that would have had the bill take effect in the 112th Congress.

Cannon also introduced an amendment that would allow Utah to decide whether to have its new House seat be at-large or undertake a redistricting effort to make a fourth seat. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) introduced an amendment to Cannon’s amendment, which would have required the state to use a four-district map that was designed by the Utah legislature in December.

Both failed.

Despite the at-times heated debate by the panel, voting rights advocates were still “thrilled” with the result of the markup.

Today’s approval is the farthest voting rights advocates have come in decades in their quest to get D.C. a House seat. A similar measure was introduced in the 109th Congress, but it never made it out of Judiciary.

D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), who introduced the measure with Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), called the bill “a rolling stone.”

And Ilir Zherka, executive director of the group DC Vote, said that while he was surprised by the drawn-out nature of today’s debate, the result marks a huge milestone for the effort.