DC Vote Optimistic About 111th Congress

Posted October 6, 2008 at 6:23pm

Advocates of giving the District of Columbia a vote in the House are already looking past a November lame-duck session and into the 111th Congress, where an expected uptick in Democrats could provide a winning margin for the decades-old battle despite the loss of a key GOP ally.

DC Vote — Washington’s main voting rights group — told its partners last week that it was switching its focus to next year and the next Congress.

That decision comes after months of public relations campaigns and lobbying efforts to get the bill back on the Senate floor, where it fell just three votes short of overcoming a filibuster in September 2007. It passed the House in April of that year, 241-177.

That’s the closest the District has ever come to getting voting representation.

DC Vote Executive Director Ilir Zherka is optimistic about the prospects in the 111th Congress, noting that the “D.C. voting rights movement is better positioned now than at any time in 30 years.”

The Senate, he says, will probably gain a few Democratic and ostensibly supportive Members, while presidential nominees Sens. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) are more likely to sign a bill than President Bush, whose advisers once said they would push him to veto it.

A spokeswoman for Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.), who co-sponsored the Senate legislation with Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), said the movement is relying on the “expected change of the makeup” of both chambers.

“There’s no denying that the hope is that there will be more Democrats in the Senate next year,” she said.

But advocates will still have some obstacles.

For one, Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) — who has pushed his colleagues to support the bill for years — is retiring at the end of this session. As ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, he worked with Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) to pass the bill out of committee.

“That’s going to be a major question for us post-election, now that Tom’s out,” Zherka said. “Who’s the ranking member? Are they supportive? Those are all questions we’ll be asking.”

With Davis gone, advocates and Democrats will have to work harder to gain the support of Republicans, some of whom consider it unconstitutional to give the District a voting Member.

Others may worry that the DC Voting Rights Act gives Democrats another seat and is a first step toward Senate recognition.

One way advocates have in the past tried to neutralize those arguments was to add into the bill a provision for an additional House seat for Republican-leaning Utah, which narrowly missed getting an extra seat in the 2000 Census.

That bargaining chip will be less compelling in the 111th Congress, when the 2010 Census, which is expected to result in another seat for Utah, will be just a year away.

But Hatch’s office said he would still support the bill (the offices of other Utah Members didn’t return calls by press time). And Zherka questioned whether states wouldn’t prefer a seat earlier, even if only by a year or two.

“I don’t know about that,” he said, citing the eagerness of states to replace a Member who leaves midterm. People, he said, are “eager for representation. I think that Utah would welcome an additional Member whenever they can get it.”

After last year’s three-vote failure to overcome a filibuster, voting rights advocates continued to push hard and had secured two of the three votes needed to overcome the filibuster by June (though Zherka won’t name the Senators).

But “fates changed” in July, when Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) was diagnosed with brain cancer, Zherka said.

Kennedy supports D.C. voting rights, so with him away from the Senate — and with Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) away campaigning — the group would have to change the minds of more Republicans to get the bill to the Senate floor.

“The math changed for us pretty dramatically,” he said. “As we got closer to September, it became obvious that we didn’t have the votes and that the Senate was consumed by the financial crisis.”

Whether a bill in the 111th Congress would mirror the one introduced this Congress is uncertain.

Advocates will map out a plan after the presidential elections and will no doubt speak with D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), who has fought for years to give her seat voting power.

“Depending on outcome,” Zherka said, “we could have a different political map to deal with in terms of Congress and the White House.”