It’s Déjà Vu for D.C. Voting Rights Bill

Posted January 26, 2009 at 6:29pm

Members begin their battle today over whether the District should get a full vote in the House — a Congressional déjà vu for everyone involved.

In 2007, the bill weaved its way through the House, with Members taking months to hammer out a negotiation and bring it to the floor. It passed 241-177, only to come three votes short of overcoming a filibuster in the Senate.

Today, its starts all over again, with the bill facing its first hurdle in a Judiciary subcommittee markup. All the familiar faces will be there — even former Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), who helped write the bill and is expected to testify.

But this time, voting-rights advocates are hoping for a quick passage in the House, counting on a Democratic Congress and a sympathetic President. D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) has been particularly optimistic about the bill’s chances, predicting that it will garner more than the 60 votes it needs in the Senate.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) has buoyed their hopes by asking to testify at today’s hearing of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. The bill, Hoyer has said, is a “high priority” that he hopes to bring to the floor early.

“Majority Leader Hoyer taking the time out of his very, very busy schedule to come testify just shows his strong commitment,” said Illir Zherka, executive director of DC Vote, the city’s major voting-rights group. “We are really encouraged by his leadership.”

Norton and other delegates can vote in committees and the Committee of the Whole (which debates legislation but cannot pass a bill) — but they are barred from voting on the House floor.

The re-emergence of the Voting Rights Act has reignited the debate over whether giving D.C. a full vote is constitutional. Reps. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) and Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) have both argued that the bill isn’t constitutional — and both are testifying at today’s markup.

Utah would actually benefit from the bill. As a compromise, the proposed legislation not only gives the Democratic District a full-voting Representative, but it also grants Republican Utah an additional seat. The state narrowly missed gaining a seat after the 2000 Census.

But Chaffetz said he would rather the District retrocede back into Maryland and pick up representation through the state’s delegation.

The Voting Rights Act, he said, “is clearly unconstitutional, and it’s a shame that it will set this movement back 30 years. You can’t just ignore the Constitution when its politically convenient.”

Many Republicans object to the bill because, they say, the Constitution allows only states representation in Congress.

Chaffetz said he planned to introduce a bill with his Maryland plan — a step already taken by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), who introduced legislation Friday and has introduced similar bills in past years.

But those bills have never gained much ground, and his latest has no co-sponsors. Rohrabacher’s chief of staff, Rick Dykema, conceded that Rohrabacher expects the Voting Rights Act to pass Congress. But he added that Rohrabacher also expects it will be struck down by the Supreme Court.

“He is outlining [his bill] as Plan B, and it’s a Plan B he thinks is even better than Plan A,” Dykema said.

By now, of course, most Members have made up their minds, already having been through the negotiations of last Congress. But new Members will be deciding their positions for the first time, and although most are Democrats, voting-rights advocates aren’t taking any chances.

On Wednesday, DC Vote officials are going office to office, presenting their case to any freshman who will listen.

Officials make such a visit every year. But this time, they are particularly worried about new Senators, whose support they need to garner a filibuster-proof 60 votes.

“It’s especially important this time around,” said Zherka, who added that they expect to have more than 60 votes, but “we don’t want to take any votes for granted.”