D.C. Vote Bill Makes Progress

Posted February 25, 2009 at 6:39pm

A full House seat for the District moved slightly closer to reality on Wednesday as the Senate began debate on a voting rights bill and the House Judiciary Committee cleared its chamber’s version of the legislation.

Obstacles still await the District of Columbia House Voting Rights Act, not least among them a likely court battle over its constitutionality.

Voting rights advocates began to focus on strategy and to manage expectations Wednesday, though they continued to celebrate the bill’s progression so far. On Tuesday, the Senate voted 62-34 to begin debate, overcoming a major 60-vote procedural hurdle that has dogged the bill for years.

“This legislation is an attempt to correct a 200-year-old injustice — the disenfranchisement of what is now over half a million residents in the District of Columbia,” Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.) said at the Judiciary markup. “Today, we may be nearing the finish line with a legislative remedy.”

The bill would grant a full House seat to the Democratic-heavy District, along with an extra seat for Republican-leaning Utah. Utah narrowly missed getting an additional seat in the 2000 Census.

Opponents argue that the bill violates the Constitution’s Composition Clause, which specifies that Representatives are elected by “the people of the several states.” But supporters say the Constitution’s District Clause trumps the Composition Clause because it gives Congress wide-reaching authority over the city.

Those arguments were rehashed at the Judiciary Committee markup, and Members spent hours debating amendments. But by 7 p.m., the committee passed the bill 20-12 with only small changes — among them, a provision that would delay a District seat until 2010 to avoid special-election problems.

D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) called the delay unfortunate but necessary.

“This is one of the many sacrifices we believe it was prudent to make,” she said in a statement, “although any delay after more than 200 years is a bitter pill to swallow.”

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) has said he plans to bring the bill to the floor next week.

The amended bill also includes a provision to expedite judicial review to ensure that the legislation is not tied up in court fights for years.

Among the amendments that didn’t pass the committee was one from ranking member Lamar Smith (R-Texas), who warned colleagues that passing the “constitutionally suspect bill” would “tarnish the reputation” of the committee.

His amendment would have specified that Members of Congress have standing to challenge the bill in court.

Democrats argued it was unnecessary, but Republicans pointed to recent speculation that even if the bill is unconstitutional, no one would have standing to bring it to court.

At one point, the committee was locked in a 15-15 vote on the measure because most Democrats had left the proceeding to vote on the omnibus bill. Conyers appeared to tread water, asking several times if other Members wished to vote, while Democratic and Republican staffers hurriedly rounded up their bosses to return to the vote.

But ultimately it was struck down, to Democrats’ relief.

“I really do not think we should weigh in,” Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) said. “It’s up to the courts to determine standing.”

Still, Republicans took the chance to speak out against the bill, urging either retrocession into Maryland or a constitutional amendment.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) called the legislation “a camel nose underneath a tent flap.” Voting rights advocates, he warned, don’t want one voting Representative — they are working toward the “whole camel and the caravan” of two voting Senators.

Besides, he added, anyone who feels underrepresented can move to Maryland or Virginia.

“This is not a form of slavery. This is not taxation without representation. This is in fact a choice,” he said. “The choice to live in the District of Columbia rather than Maryland.”

In the Senate, familiar faces in the voting rights fight took to the floor to debate its merits and drawbacks.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) touched on almost every argument thus far voiced against the bill — namely, that it’s unconstitutional, politically motivated and could lead to the District getting two Senators.

The bill, he said, “can only be interpreted in one way and that is an attempt to buy votes.

“I’m concerned that this bill is more a product of politics than principle,” he said. “The obvious question is, ‘Why Utah?’”

As expected, Republican Senators also offered up several amendments to the bill.

As of press time, that included two amendments to change the city’s gun laws and one introduced by Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) to retrocede any non-federal land in the District back to Maryland.

Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) tried to attach an amendment that mirrors a bill he pushed last year to change the District handgun laws. It would permit relatively unrestricted gun regulations in Washington, including assault rifles such as AK-47s, and loosen many of the gun safety measures passed by the D.C. Council after the Supreme Court lifted the city’s strict gun ban.

The new D.C. laws, Ensign said, are a “real constitutional injustice.”

Though the Ensign bill passed the House and had strong Republican support in the Senate, it is a wildly unpopular notion to District residents and voting rights advocates, who see it as an attempt by Congress to interfere in the city’s affairs.

Coburn also offered an amendment, which would strike the entire bill and replace it with language exempting D.C. residents from federal income tax. That effort failed 91-7.

As of press time, all other amendments were still pending.

Senators agreed earlier in the day by voice vote to an amendment from Kyl that would expedite judicial review of the bill; otherwise, it could be stuck in the courts for years.