CBC Whips for D.C. Vote Bill

Posted March 17, 2009 at 6:43pm

Some of D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton’s (D) Congressional Black Caucus colleagues are jumping into the debate over the D.C. voting rights bill, making a civil rights appeal to the conservative Democrats who are insisting on a gun rights amendment that has thrown the measure into the lurch.

The strategy appears destined to fall short, as the National Rifle Association flexes its considerable strength behind the scenes to keep a large bloc of Democrats in line. But the maneuver is sure to put some lawmakers in an awkward spot between the powerful gun lobby and their own African-American constituents.

“We need to make sure the Blue Dogs understand we can’t deny full citizenship to people in the United States over some guns,— said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), a CBC member.

He signaled CBC members could seek to pressure conservative Democrats back home, adding, “I didn’t say I’m not going to let [African-American voters] know, but at this point, I’m trying to rationally discuss a very, very serious issue.—

Norton said that she thinks support is building across the Democratic Caucus for the measure and that she has found it is gathering a “spontaneously enthusiastic— response from moderates and conservatives.

In a letter Tuesday to fellow House Democrats, Norton said she is confident “that with your help, our Leadership will be able to bring this bill to the House Floor with a clean Rule, as they did last session, soon. Our Caucus is united on civil rights issues, none more so than on a vote in this House for taxpaying American citizens who have always fought and died for their country.—

But other Democrats involved in the negotiations are less sanguine. House Democratic leaders earlier this month pulled the measure from floor consideration after it became clear that the NRA would punish conservative Democrats who supported it without allowing an amendment from Rep. Travis Childers (D-Miss.) to ease the Washington, D.C.’s gun restrictions. Senators voted 62-36 to add the language to their version of the bill before adopting it.

House leaders have been stumped since then about a path forward. Last year, 82 Democrats split off to give the Childers amendment 260 votes — and the math has only gotten more complicated since the 2008 elections added more pro-gun lawmakers to House Democratic ranks.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) — a confidant of Democratic moderates who, as a capital-area lawmaker, is also personally committed to the measure’s passage — has quarterbacked leadership’s efforts on the bill. Hoyer on Tuesday signaled the difficulty in finding a way to clear the measure.

“I think we’re having discussions, and I think we’re making some progress in the sense that, I think, people recognize the challenge, and I think they’ve recognized that we need to meet that challenge because this is the time for this bill,— he said.

With the measure in limbo, sources close to the CBC said caucus members intend to reframe the issue for conservative Democrats hesitant to alienate the NRA.

“There are a lot of moderate to conservative Democrats who jealously guard their NRA ratings, but there are also a lot of moderate to conservative Democrats, especially in the South, who realize they have a hell of a lot of African-American voters,— one source close to the CBC said.

Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.), another CBC member, said he has not yet begun talking to moderates but intends to. He said the balance those lawmakers need to strike between gun rights and voting rights is “a delicate thing— and he is not sure he can successfully make the case.

One CBC member who will not be joining the effort: Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.). Davis, who is running for governor in 2010, is a gun rights supporter. He voted for the Childers amendment and said he would seek to do so again.

“There’s no contradiction in believing, as I do, that D.C. should absolutely get a full-fledged vote in the U.S. House of Representatives … and people in D.C. should enjoy the same Second Amendment protections as people in every state in the country,— Davis said.

As a political consideration, Davis said the his party would be wise to embrace gun rights moving forward.

“The Democratic Party should be trying to grow our strength in some of the redder parts of America to build a lasting Democratic majority and not just a 50 or 53 percent majority,— he said. “And gun rights are a very important value [and] cultural issue in Alabama and Georgia and Mississippi and Louisiana, and those voters frankly don’t need to see the Democratic Party as being hostile to their interests.—