Gun Groups May Hold D.C. Rights Vote Hostage

Posted March 6, 2009 at 6:10pm

The debate over giving the District a House vote has quickly devolved into a political jousting match between local voting-rights advocates and the ghost of a powerful gun lobby.

Last week, advocates and supportive House Members scrambled to persuade more than 60 moderate and conservative Democrats to vote for an amendment-free bill — despite rumors that the National Rifle Association would consider that vote an anti-gun-rights move.

The NRA’s hope: that Republicans will be able to offer an amendment to strip D.C. of most of its gun safety laws. But House leaders want to quash that possibility by not allowing any amendments at all.

“You know, just as D.C. residents aren’t invested in what happens in Nevada or Arkansas, those in Nevada or Arkansas aren’t invested in what happens in D.C.,— said Jaline Quinto, a spokeswoman for the local voting rights group DC Vote. “This isn’t going to be a make-or-break-it issue for these people. That’s really the message we’re trying to drive home.—

If the gun amendment is offered, it would almost certainly pass, jeopardizing the votes of gun-safety advocates. But if leaders present a rule to ban amendments to the bill, advocates worry that centrist Democrats might vote against that rule because of the NRA’s threat to score it as a gun-rights vote in its annual evaluations of Members.

D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) said on Friday that the group Leadership Conference on Civil Rights has said it will score the same vote if the NRA rumors prove true.

But she expressed confidence that the Democratic Caucus would “stay united,— pointing to similar complications in 2007 before the House voted 241-177 to pass a nearly identical bill.

“We just need to be able to get the same clean rule that our Caucus voted on last time,— she said. “I do think we are going to be able to do that now.—

The District of Columbia House Voting Rights Act would give D.C. a full House vote, whereas now it has only a nonvoting delegate. The bill would also give an extra House seat to the Republican-leaning Utah, which narrowly missed gaining a seat after the 2000 Census.

The NRA didn’t respond to requests for comment on Friday, and officials at the organization haven’t publicly confirmed that they would score the vote.

But if they did score it, it would be unusual, as the vote on a rule is mostly procedural and is not related to gun legislation. Furthermore, the gun amendment would easily pass the House if considered alone — in fact, a similar bill did last year.

Now, the voting rights legislation is attracting the attention of both sides of the gun lobby, complicating an already complex debate that once focused on whether giving D.C. a full House seat was constitutional. Voting rights advocates say that the political wrangling could take weeks.

The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence has been keeping an eye on the bill and speaking out against the amendment. Dennis Henigan, vice president for law and policy at the Brady Campaign, called the fear of the NRA’s threat “vastly overblown.—

“We think it would be shameful for them to not enact [the voting rights bill] into law because of fear of gun lobbying,— he said. “Unfortunately, I think that the perception of NRA power is firmly entrenched in the minds of a lot of Members of Congress, and it does not accord with the facts.—

Indeed, in various statements and news releases last week, Norton kept up a theme of optimism.

On Friday, Norton said the Congressional Black Caucus considers the bill a civil rights issue and would be working to help get it passed. Caucus Chairwoman Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) has already spoken with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) about moving it to the floor quickly, Norton said.

“I don’t think Democrats want to kill a civil rights bill with guns. I really don’t,— she said. “Feeling that sincerely, I think that there’s a way out of it.—