D.C. Vote Hinges on Guns, Not DOJ

Posted April 1, 2009 at 6:25pm

Negotiations over the District of Columbia House Voting Rights Act probably won’t be affected by news that the Department of Justice is split over whether the bill is constitutional, according to Members and staffers on both sides of the issue.

“I don’t think Members are in the least bit affected in their votes on the question of its constitutionality,— D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) said Wednesday. “People vote their politics in the House and in the Senate.—

The bill would give the District a full House seat, replacing the city’s nonvoting delegate seat. Norton and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) have been working for weeks to bring it to the floor, hampered by Republican efforts to attach a poison pill amendment to the bill.

The amendment, controversial yet popular among Members, would get rid of most of the District’s gun laws.

On Wednesday, Hoyer downplayed reports that the DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel declared the bill unconstitutional. Attorney General Eric Holder believes the bill is constitutional, and on Wednesday, the Washington Post reported that he asked for a second legal opinion from the solicitor general’s office.

Hoyer contended the debate was nothing new. The issue of the constitutionality of the D.C. voting rights bill has been raised in committee hearings over the years and “will continue to be raised,— he said.

“The gun amendment complicates things, not this,— he said.

Ilir Zherka, executive director of local advocacy group DC Vote, agreed. Though the DOJ’s lawyers are split in their opinions, he said, the solicitor general’s office also has said it can defend the bill in a likely court battle.

But he added that he expected the bill’s opponents to “latch on— to the news.

“I’m sure they’ll try to make a mountain out of a molehill here, and that’s to be expected,— he said. “But I think people who support [the bill] realize that the attorney general needed to hear from fresh voices at the Justice Department.—

Indeed, Republicans seemed to use the news Wednesday to criticize Holder for partisan tactics but fell short of predicting the demise of the voting rights act.

“Look, the bill is clearly unconstitutional,— a spokesman for Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) said. “We certainly hope that the news that the attorney general had to put partisan pressure on Department of Justice lawyers to ignore that fact will give supporters of the bill a moment of pause.—

But Norton argued that the solicitor general’s office actually has more expertise on the matter. Holder, she said, was appealing the decision of one group of “line attorneys— to another group of line attorneys.

“It didn’t reject that opinion. It appealed that opinion to an office that is more authoritative and more expert on constitutional issues,— she said.

Opponents of the bill claim only states can elect a Member to the House, pointing to a clause in the Constitution that specifies that Representatives are elected “by the people of the several states.— Proponents hang their argument on the District Clause, which gives Congress sweeping power over the city.

House Oversight and Government Reform ranking member Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) heard all the arguments back in 2007, when the bill came before the committee.

He called it “absolutely— unconstitutional but said Democratic leaders could probably still pass it. The fact that Justice Department lawyers produced different opinions on the bill’s constitutionality probably won’t complicate the bill’s passage, he said, because “it’s all sophistry.—

The gun amendment, meanwhile, remains a large thorn in the side of voting rights advocates.

Norton has thus far been unable to convince enough Members to vote for a closed rule on the bill — meaning no amendments could be offered — partly because the National Rifle Association has threatened to treat such a vote as one against gun rights.

Still, Norton said on Wednesday that they’re “getting closer,— and Hoyer has predicted the bill will be on the floor by May.