D.C. Vote On Hold for Now

Posted June 9, 2009 at 6:37pm

Voting rights advocates indefinitely postponed their efforts to pass the District of Columbia House Voting Rights Act, citing an inability to strip out an amendment that would gut the city’s gun laws.

The bill, which would give D.C. its first-ever Representative, stalled in March because of the poison-pill amendment. Under pressure from the National Rifle Association, many pro-gun Members were unwilling to vote for an amendment-free bill.

Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) tried for months to come up with a compromise, but on Tuesday, he all but admitted defeat.

“As a result of there not being a consensus, I don’t think we’re going to be able to move the bill at this point in time,— he told reporters at his weekly briefing.

The decision to hold off seems to have come from voting rights advocates who realized the bill couldn’t pass without a version of the gun amendment. Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) originally offered the amendment in the Senate, where the bill easily passed with the provision attached.

In a memo sent Tuesday to Members and city officials, D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) said Hoyer “has been trying unsuccessfully to get the votes for a clean bill.—

On a Sunday conference call, she said, the bill’s advocates considered a “compromise— gun amendment from Hoyer. But they decided to “wait for now,— she wrote in the memo, because none of the available options would result in the elimination of a gun amendment.

“Please understand that we are holding the bill for now, not giving up on voting rights,— she wrote.

Hoyer’s office declined to comment on the memo, but spokeswoman Stephanie Lundberg said the Majority Leader won’t give up on getting the bill passed and “doesn’t believe there is a deadline that precludes action.—

The gun amendment was particularly controversial because it highlighted what the voting rights act aimed to eradicate: Congress’ control over the city. If passed, the amendment would rewrite the District’s gun laws without any input from the city itself.

D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray (D) said in a statement that he was “disappointed— at the bill’s postponement after advocates “began this year with a high level of enthusiasm and optimism.—

But, he added, “the onerous and dangerous nature of the Ensign amendment, which would remove major provisions of the District’s gun control legislation and most importantly eliminate the authority of the Council to legislate in this area in the future, perhaps makes this delay a necessary step for now.—

In fact, Ensign’s efforts to change the city’s gun laws may have steered voting rights advocates in a new direction. DC Vote, a local nonprofit that has spent years fighting for the voting rights act, announced Tuesday that it will now also tackle what Executive Director Ilir Zherka called “local democracy— issues.

That would include efforts like Ensign’s to change D.C. law, Zherka said. He also left the door open on new tactics for gaining full representation in Congress.

“We will definitely put all options on the table,— he said, later adding: “We will be also thinking strategically about how we get to full democracy for Washington — full local democracy as well as full representation in Congress.—

The bill would only give the city one Representative (along with an extra one to Republican-leaning Utah), leaving the possibility of two Senators completely out of the equation.

But Zherka said the gun amendment has highlighted the long-term need for the District’s separation from Congress, perhaps in the form of statehood.

He stressed, however, that the voting rights act has the votes to pass in the House and Senate. Indeed, it easily passed the House in 2007 and the Senate in March.

The question, he said, is whether they can weed out amendments such as the gun provision. Still, the group hopes to bring the act up again in the 111th Congress — and next time, it is hoping for some much-needed help.

“I think it’s time for Barack Obama to be involved in this fight,— Zherka said, “and I think we’re going to make that clear for the White House and to the president.—