Norton Optimistic That D.C. Voting Bill Will Pass

Posted January 6, 2009 at 6:39pm

District of Columbia residents are close to getting what they’ve lacked for more than 200 years: a voting seat in Congress.

Voting rights advocates and supportive Members are optimistic that the House and Senate will soon pass the D.C. Voting Rights Act — a bill that came within three votes of passing the Senate in 2007.

On Tuesday, D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) all but declared victory, saying that it seemed to be more a question of when, not if, the bill would pass.

“We have finally got the stars aligned. We have got a president who was a co-sponsor of the bill, virtually ensuring that he will sign it,” Norton said in an interview. “We have a larger House than we got the bill through last session. And we have almost a super-majority in the Senate. What more can you ask for the residents of the District of Columbia?”

In many ways, the 111th Congress is the perfect storm. Democratic gains in the Senate, combined with a handful of GOP supporters, make 60 votes possible, and the chairmen of the relevant committees are supportive.

But amid the optimism, voting rights advocates admit there are obstacles.

At the top of the list: Getting House and Senate leadership to move the legislation when Members are focused on passing major bills such as the economic stimulus package.

“The big challenge will be getting floor time during a year when the world is experiencing an economic crisis and we’ve got two wars abroad and lots of economic pain here at home,” said Ilir Zherka, executive director of the nonprofit DC Vote. “So I think part of what we will try to do is make sure our bill is one of the priorities.”

A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) emphasized Reid’s support but said the schedule wouldn’t be set until the bill passed the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

In the House, a leadership aide said the bill was “early in the priority” but had not yet been put on a schedule.

Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) is taking the first step, announcing Tuesday that he hopes to get the bill moving as soon as possible by passing it during his committee’s first markup this year.

“I hope and believe and pray that this is the session where we’re going to get this done,” he said on the floor Tuesday.

The committee’s ranking member, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), has supported the bill in the past. The Senate has also gained new Members who are supportive of the bill, such as Sens. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) and Tom Udall (D-N.M.).

Zherka pointed out that the bill already went through negotiations and hearings in the 110th Congress and thus could be spared a similarly lengthy process in the 111th. If the bill is quickly passed out of committee — or sent directly to a chamber floor — it could pass without distracting Congress from other issues.

Norton agreed, suggesting the legislation could be brought to the floor while the economic stimulus package is in the middle of its hearings.

Provided Members don’t want to change the bill, the voting rights act will only have to go through the House Judiciary Committee, headed by Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.), who Norton said she has been working with on when to bring it up in committee.

The fact that the bill does not have to go through the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee — as it did in 2007 — will probably help its chances.

In the 110th Congress, the committee was headed by the supportive Rep. Harry Waxman (D-Calif.), while the ranking member spot was filled with now-retired Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), who helped write the voting rights bill and garner Republican support.

This session’s chairman, Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.), voted for the measure in 2007 and continues to support it. However, newly appointed ranking member Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) is having second thoughts.

Issa voted for the bill back in 2007, but spokesman Frederick Hill said he is now worried that it could lead to demands by some voting rights supporters that the District also get two seats in the Senate — which Issa considers unconstitutional.

“Mr. Issa took it initially as a compromise to take the one seat, but now the supporters have betrayed that as one step toward two Senate seats,” Hill said. “He thinks the effort really needs to have a fresh start.”

The bill also doesn’t have the support of at least one Utah Member, despite its inclusion of an additional House seat for the Republican-leaning state, which narrowly missed getting the extra seat in the 2000 Census. Newly elected Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R) has said he thinks the bill is unconstitutional.

Such objections may have a minimal effect, however, because of overwhelming support in the House. In 2007, the bill passed 241-177 — a margin that will probably grow with this year’s Democratic gains. And in the Senate, Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) is the bill’s co-sponsor, along with Lieberman.

Provided that all goes well and the bill is signed into law, it will still face another obstacle: a probable court challenge.

Zherka said DC Vote already has lawyers working on the case. But for Norton, pleasing her constituents is the focus, regardless of whether there’s a court challenge.

“Residents are pressing me very hard against any more delay,” she said, “because of vastly important issues coming before Congress this year.”