D.C. Bill Split to Ensure Passage

Posted April 18, 2007 at 6:45pm

Legislation to grant the District of Columbia a full-voting Representative will be sent to the House floor for a second time today, with Democrats arguing they have worked around troublesome language that allowed Republicans to tie up the bill in March.

The original District of Columbia House Voting Rights Act has been divided into two measures. The first grants D.C. a House vote while also giving an at-large seat to Utah, and the second addresses the costs associated with the new seats. By combining the two items last time, Democrats opened the bill to a poison pill.

“Essentially, what this rule allows is for those two things to happen while denying Republicans an opportunity to kill the bill with unrelated issues,” said Stacey Farnen Bernards, a spokeswoman for Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.).

Democrats specifically are hoping to avoid problems that plagued them the last time D.C. voting rights legislation hit the House floor, when, after hours of debate on the merits of the bill, Judiciary ranking member Lamar Smith (R-Texas) put forth a motion to recommit to repeal the city’s ban on handguns.

Democrats pulled the bill from the floor rather than have their moderate Members vote on the controversial gun control issue. But Republicans were able to put forth the motion only because Democrats added language to offset spending for Utah’s new seat. Otherwise, the motion would have been considered non-germane.

So, this time around, Democrats said they have structured the legislation so that Republicans cannot write a sequel.

To cover the costs of the new seats, the second bill amends the Internal Revenue Code to adjust the tax payment safe harbor for those whose adjusted gross income is greater than $5 million. And each measure can go into effect only if the other passes. If that happens, the text of the second measure will simply be added to the bottom of the first.

“Democrats remain committed to restoring fiscal responsibility to Congress after six years of irresponsible Republican rule,” Hoyer said in a statement.

Motions to recommit will still be allowed on the bill. Hoyer said Tuesday that he will urge Democrats to vote against all Republican motions to recommit that contain technical amendments created to stall legislation, even if they agree with the content of the motion.

The Rules Committee approved the two measures in a 9-4 vote on Wednesday. The technical aspects of the measures faced objection from Republicans on the committee, who argued Democrats are seeking to prevent Republicans from engaging in a full debate.

Republicans specifically objected to the bills being approved on a close rule, essentially preventing lawmakers from adding amendments on the floor.

“They’ve trounced the rights of the minority,” said Rules ranking member David Dreier (R-Calif.). “That’s basically what they’ve done here.”

Republicans also argued that pulling the bill from the House floor in March was improper, primarily because debate on the measure already had wrapped up.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who has been a supporter of past D.C. voting rights legislation, testified at the Rules hearing that he worried a lack of openness could harm the legislation if it became law and subsequently faced a court challenge.

“We should use a process to make sure the justices have no question about the will of Congress,” Issa said.

Democrats insisted that the process has been open all along, and they remained confident the measure would pass.

“This bill is about fairness. This bill is about Democracy,” Rep. Michael Arcuri (D-N.Y.) said. “This is what we should be talking about. Instead, we are talking about everything else.”

The bill is the third version introduced this Congress to address D.C. voting rights through compromise legislation.

The first, introduced in January by Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), granted D.C. a vote while also giving a fourth legislative seat to Utah.

But some lawmakers worried about the impact redistricting could have on Utah’s current delegation, and so a new measure was introduced to allow Utah’s new Representative to serve in an at-large seat.

Republicans opposed to the measure have argued that it is unconstitutional because only states are allowed to vote in Congress.

“There are constitutional ways of ensuring every American citizen has voting representation in Congress — methods that avoid the inevitable legal challenges and electoral problems this bill presents,” Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) said in March. “This bill shortchanges the residents of the District of Columbia, who deserve a more serious debate on how to provide them with a greater voice in the federal government.”

Many GOP opponents also argue that granting Utah an at-large seat is unconstitutional.

But supporters of the measure have countered that courts have upheld past at-large seats. They also say the Constitution’s District Clause gives Congress the right to grant D.C. a vote and can point to a recent Congressional Research Service report that argues the new Utah seat would be constitutional.

The vote follows Monday’s Emancipation Day march, in which voting rights advocates estimate that 5,000 people rallied at the Capitol to demand Congressional representation for the District.

Ilir Zherka, executive director of advocacy group DC Vote, said Wednesday that he and others already were planning a victory celebration. But he added that he isn’t getting his hopes up.

“Republicans are crafty. They may come up with another way to stall us,” he said. “If they don’t, we’re going to get a majority.”

If the bill were to pass, it would face an unlikely future in the Senate, where backers lack the wide-ranging support that exists in the House.