Norton Calls for Action on D.C. Vote

Posted April 17, 2009 at 5:38pm

D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) says the District of Columbia House Voting Rights Act must pass in the next two weeks, even as House leadership pushed back an ever-slipping deadline to the end of May.

In an interview Friday, Norton called the bill “way overdue— and claimed it could pass under a closed rule that would prohibit amendments.

“We’re endangering the bill itself for how late it’s going,— she said, pointing out that it will already face a long court battle after passage. “We’ll lose the opportunity to get the vote because we’ve run out of time.—

But little seems to have changed over the two-week recess. City officials are still divided over how to handle a controversial gun amendment, and pro-gun Democrats haven’t given any indication that they would vote against it.

Last month, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said he was confident the bill would get to the House floor by May. But by last week, he had changed his prediction to the “end of May.—

Spokeswoman Stephanie Lundberg said there was “still work to be done.—

“The timeline is flexible,— she said. “Certainly, it remains a priority and a possibility for consideration as soon as we have a consensus on a way to move forward.—

So far, voting rights supporters have been divided on what to do next. By and large, city officials don’t want the gun amendment, which would essentially wipe out the city’s gun laws. But they also disagree on whether they’re willing to accept some version of it in order to get the vote.

The D.C. City Council is already talking about statehood for the city, forming a committee to look into such an effort. Some council members have said if the bill can only pass with the gun amendment, it shouldn’t pass at all.

Mayor Adrian Fenty, on the other hand, told the Washington Post that the city might need to accept the provision.

Norton has walked the line, condemning the amendment but also warning that it could end up attached to the bill.

“I’m not the leadership, I can’t tell you what the next step is,— she said Friday, later adding: “I’m sufficiently afraid that you’d get a compromise that still left some [of the amendment] or you could get the whole thing on there.—

Two weeks ago, she held a hearing where officials from agencies such as Homeland Security and the Metro Transit Police testified that the amendment could escalate violence and make enforcement more difficult.

Since then, Norton said she has been working to get the word out, connecting gun violence incidents around the country to the gun amendment.

With the recess over, she said she hoped to talk face-to-face with Members on the consequences of passing the provision. Already, she has sent a “security memorandum— to House and Senate leadership.

“I’d like to meet with the Blue Dogs and other conservative members,— she said. “I would like the leadership to meet with them and lay out the effects of this amendment.—

The amendment has stalled the bill since early March, when Hoyer pulled it from the House calendar. It would get rid of most of the District’s gun laws, allowing residents to own semi-automatic weapons and purchase guns without registration.

The amendment is already attached to the Senate version of the bill, thanks to Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.). The bill passed the chamber quickly, with a tally of 61-37.

But in the House, the bill hit a Catch-22.

If House leaders allowed the amendment to be offered, Members would almost certainly vote to attach it. But in that form, the bill might not get enough liberal votes to pass.

Alternatively, if the Rules Committee reported the bill under a “closed rule— that didn’t allow such amendments, Members might vote against considering it — partly because the National Rifle Association has threatened to consider a vote for a closed rule as anti-gun-rights.

For weeks, Hoyer, Norton and other voting rights advocates have tried to come up with a solution. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus have also lent a hand, heralding the bill as a civil rights issue and attempting to convince pro-gun Democratic colleagues that the amendment shouldn’t hold those rights hostage.

But progress has been slow. The local nonprofit DC Vote targeted 80 pro-gun and conservative Democrats, going back to their offices sometimes two or three times to convince them to vote for a clean bill. But not many were willing to make that promise.

The advocacy group has switched gears, buying print and radio ads in several conservative districts. On Tuesday, they will also push for a clean bill at a rally near the Longworth House Office Building.

The group also plans to have briefings with Member offices, following up on a memo they recently sent to all House and Senate Members. The memo, written for DC Vote by Patton Boggs, calls the gun amendment outdated and unnecessary.

“We’re going to continue to sort of share information and make sure people know what is in the amendment,— DC Vote Executive Director Ilir Zherka said. “We found when we visited offices that there really was not an adequate understanding— of current D.C. gun law and the effects of the amendment.

Norton said that once Members know those facts, Democrats — even pro-gun ones — won’t vote for the amendment, despite the NRA threat.

But Hoyer’s office was more cautious, promising swift action only when the time was right.

“The goal is to bring the D.C. vote bill to the floor during this next work period, and we’re prepared to do that as soon as we know the votes are there,— Lundberg said.

If the bill clears the House, it still faces a long battle in the courts. Opponents claim the bill is unconstitutional because it gives a Representative to a non-state, while supporters claim that issue is trumped by a provision in the Constitution that gives Congress sweeping power over the District.