D.C. Vote Bill Pulled

Posted March 3, 2009 at 6:42pm

After coming the closest they have in 30 years to getting a vote in the House, Washington, D.C., residents are watching their chance at Congressional representation stall in the hands of party politics yet again.

The District of Columbia House Voting Rights Act is now in stasis, thanks to a poison pill amendment that would strike down most of the city’s gun safety laws.

The amendment handily won approval in the Senate last week, and Senators passed the bill with a vote of 61-37. The gun provision, offered by Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), is popular in both chambers, and a bill nearly identical to the amendment easily passed the House last year.

But Democratic leaders worry that if a similar amendment is offered and accepted in the House, the voting rights bill itself won’t get enough votes to pass, according to a leadership aide. Passing a rule to bar such amendments could also jeopardize the bill, if the move alienates centrist Democrats.

The Rules Committee had scheduled consideration of the bill on Tuesday, and D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) planned to testify in favor of a rule “devoted solely— to the voting rights bill, according to a press release.

But the Rules meeting was indefinitely postponed, and it’s unclear when the bill will reach the floor. After a Democratic Caucus meeting Tuesday evening, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said there would be no votes on the bill this week.

“Clearly, we don’t yet have an agreement— on the bill, he said.

Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) criticized Democratic leaders’ unwillingness to put the bill on the floor, saying in a statement Tuesday that the gun amendment would secure Second Amendment rights for D.C. residents.

“The Democratic leadership repeatedly has made promises for a return to regular order’ in the House, but this is added proof of just how hollow that promise has become,— he said. “By maneuvering to deny Second Amendment rights to residents of our nation’s capital, Democratic leaders have made it clear that regular order’ and the will of the American people will be respected only when it serves their interests.—

Ilir Zherka, executive director of voting rights group DC Vote, said he expected a challenge and called the delay “an opportunity for us to mobilize.— The legislation that eventually passes, he said, must be a “clean bill.—

“It’s necessary for us to regroup to ensure that the D.C. voting rights act does not have a gun amendment attached to it,— Zherka said. “We’re fighting for voting representation, but we’re also fighting to retain D.C. local democracy.—

The bill would give the staunchly Democratic District a voting Representative and the Republican-leaning Utah another seat, increasing the number of Members in the House to 437. Utah narrowly missed getting an additional seat following the 2000 Census and reapportionment process.

In 2007, the bill passed through the House and came just three votes short of blocking a Senate filibuster. This year, voting rights advocates have high hopes because of Democratic gains in both chambers in last year’s elections.

But the Ensign amendment has dampened some of that excitement by highlighting one of the ironies of the voting rights bill: Even if the city gets a voting Representative, Congress still has the last say on the city’s laws.

On Tuesday, the D.C. City Council passed a resolution condemning Ensign’s amendment while at the same time setting up a panel to plan a future push to gain statehood.

“[W]e are troubled that gaining one right of self-determination may come at the price of another,— Council Chairman Vincent Gray (D) said in a statement. “I find this move to gut our gun laws through the voting rights bill extremely offensive. I ask: what will it take for the residents of the District of Columbia to be allowed in the club called the United States of America?—

If the voting rights bill does get through the House, it still has an upward battle.

In conference, Members will have to iron out the difference between the House and Senate versions of the bill. Voting rights advocates had hoped that the Ensign amendment would be removed in conference, but if both chambers pass it, that’s unlikely.

Then, if President Barack Obama signs the bill as expected, it faces an almost certain court battle over its constitutionality. Opponents say the bill violates the Constitution’s Composition Clause because the District is not a state.

Tory Newmyer contributed to this report.