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D.C. Voting Rights Bill Passes First Markup, Set for Second

Having sailed through debate and a markup Tuesday, a measure to grant Washington, D.C., a full vote in the House is likely to be put under a constitutional microscope again today when the Judiciary Committee takes up the legislation.

The Judiciary panel will hear from a number of legal experts one day after the Oversight and Government Reform Committee overwhelmingly approved the District of Columbia House Voting Rights Act in a 24-5 vote. Six Republicans voted for the bill, including Oversight ranking member Tom Davis (R-Va.), who co-sponsored the legislation with Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.).

In his opening statement, Davis argued history proves the bill — which would grant Democratic-leaning D.C. full House representation while also giving an at-large seat to Utah — passes constitutional muster.

Davis pointed to the Residence Act of 1790, which granted the right to vote to those living in the District, as well as the Constitution’s District Clause, which he argued grants Congress the right to treat D.C. as a state.

“This problem affects the very reputation of our entire nation,” Davis said. “Foreign visitors I meet here and overseas comment with puzzlement on the lack of voting representation in the nation’s capital. … Our advice to others loses credibility when we refuse to solve this problem at home.”

Witnesses scheduled for today’s hearing include Georgetown professor Viet Dinh, who helped craft the USA PATRIOT Act for the Bush administration; attorney Richard Bress, who recently released a memo detailing the constitutionality of the bill; attorney Bruce Spiva, chairman of the board of directors for advocacy group DC Vote; and George Washington University Law School professor Jonathan Turley, who testified at a Judiciary subcommittee hearing last year that the measure is unconstitutional.

One topic of interest today could be a report recently released by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service that argues the bill is not constitutional because Congress does not maintain the authority to grant full representation to a non-state.

Similar arguments were made on Tuesday by the five Members who voted against the bill, including Reps. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.) and Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.), who both put forth amendments to the measure.

McHenry, calling the legislation unconstitutional, introduced two amendments, both of which were rejected as non-germane by Oversight Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.).

McHenry’s first amendment would have retroceeded, or given back, most of the District to Maryland. The second would have required adoption of a constitutional amendment granting Congress the right to give D.C. representation before the bill itself could go into effect.

Westmoreland also introduced two amendments. The first, passed by the committee on a voice vote, added to the measure language making clear that the bill is intended to give the District representation only in the House, not the Senate.

Norton called that amendment “a trap not worth a debate,” because as “an invalid attempt to bind a future Senate” it would be removed before the bill hit the House floor.

“I have been crystal clear that residents will not give up until they get their full citizenship rights and that stands now and until the last right has been granted,” Norton said.

Westmoreland’s second amendment failed in a 22-4 vote. It would have required a partisan balance for the new Utah and D.C. votes for the legislation to go into effect, a move Waxman said would force voters “to live up to our presumptions” and thus unconstitutional.

Both McHenry and Westmoreland said they are concerned that Congress is overstepping its power by granting representation to a non-state.

“They did not make [D.C.] a state,” Westmoreland said of the nation’s founders. “Therefore, they didn’t give them a vote.”

But other Members, including several Republicans, spoke out in favor of the measure.

Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) praised the bill for its “logical, principled compromise,” saying “it borders on absurdity” that D.C. does not have a full House vote.

“This is a wonderful way to proceed,” Shays said. “If in the end you don’t like compromise, you don’t like the Constitution of the United States.”

Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.) also urged passage of the bill.

“It’s amazing we can spend billions, hello, hundreds of billions, exporting democracy and then brag about it,” Cummings said.

He later added: “We don’t provide [D.C.] with the No. 1 building block of democracy.”

Voting rights advocates said after the hearing they are optimistic the bill will be passed this Congress.

“This is an indication of what you’ll see in Judiciary,” said DC Vote Executive Director Ilir Zherka, who called Tuesday “a great day for the movement.”

For D.C. Shadow Rep. Mike Panetta, the day marked a possible turning point: If the bill becomes law, Panetta will lose his non-paying seat.

“Nothing would make me happier,” Panetta joked.

Today’s hearing is scheduled for 10 a.m. in room 2141 of the Rayburn House Office Building. A Judiciary markup likely will be held on Thursday, and officials expect the measure to be presented on the House floor by the end of the month.

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