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White House Veto of D.C. Vote Possible

The White House officially took its opposition to a bill that would give the District of Columbia a full seat in the House one step further on Tuesday.

In a statement of administration policy, the Office of Management and Budget announced that senior advisers would recommend President Bush veto the District of Columbia House Voting Rights Act on the grounds that the bill is unconstitutional. While White House officials said last week the bill is seen as unconstitutional, they previously had shied away from saying whether Bush would veto the measure.

“The Constitution limits representation in the House to representatives of States,” the statement reads. It later continues: “The District of Columbia is not a State. Accordingly, congressional representation for the District of Columbia would require a constitutional amendment.”

If the bill were to become law, “the validity of all legislation passed by the reconstituted House of Representatives” would be called into question, the statement reads.

A compromise measure, the bill would grant Democratic-leaning D.C. a full-voting seat in the House while also giving an at-large seat to largely Republican Utah, which just missed gaining another seat after the 2000 Census.

Introduced by Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) and Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), the bill is scheduled for a floor vote on Friday.

The measure is expected to pass the House, where it has the support of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and a bipartisan array of Members. But its fate in the Senate is less clear, and observers have said that White House opposition could stall the measure in that chamber.

Supporters of the measure remained optimistic for the bill’s chances on Tuesday.

A Davis spokesman pointed out there are frequently bills on the floor that are not necessarily supported by the White House but make it through with strong Republican support — and subsequently are not vetoed.

“We’re still optimistic about it,” Davis spokesman Brian McNicoll said. “Absolutely.”

McNicoll pointed out that the language of the administration statement could signal the bill isn’t automatically doomed.

“They also word those things carefully,” McNicoll said. “They say they would ‘advise him to veto.’ Doesn’t mean he’d veto.”

At his weekly pen-and-pad press conference on Tuesday, Hoyer — who is a co-sponsor of the bill — called the legislation a “defense of democracy.”

“It is granting to 600,000-plus citizens of the United States of America the right to have a full-voting Representative of the Congress of the United States,” Hoyer said.

DC Vote Executive Director Ilir Zherka said Tuesday that while he was not surprised by the White House opposition, he said the administration is “putting the cart before the horse.”

“We thought the White House would at least give the Senate time to work through this bill,” Zherka said. “You’ve got bipartisan support. If it’s unconstitutional, let the courts decide.”

Republican support in Congress for the bill likely will stay strong, as the bill was designed by a Republican to begin with, Zherka said. Plus, White House opposition has created a more active grass-roots movement, Zherka added.

When the White House initially expressed its opposition to the measure last week, Norton criticized the move and urged supporters to remain optimistic for the bill’s passage.

“Some are trying to kill the bipartisan bill for voting rights for Utah and the District of Columbia before the bill is even considered by the House,” Norton said. “It has long been clear that some in the administration and Congress would advise the president to oppose the bill, relying on divided views on its constitutionality, notwithstanding considerable favorable judicial and scholarly opinions.”

A range of constitutional experts have weighed in on the issue, most recently at a Judiciary hearing held last week.

The bill’s supporters argued the Constitution’s District Clause gives Congress broad authority over D.C., including the right to give the District a full-voting Representative.

Georgetown law professor Viet Dinh told panel members that the clause “provides Congress with extraordinary and plenary power to legislate with respect to the District.”

Previous court rulings have upheld the District Clause, Dinh said.

But opponents argued the Constitution clearly indicates that only states can be granted full Congressional representation.

George Washington University professor Jonathan Turley testified that the framers of the Constitution addressed the issue head-on when designing the guidelines for the new capital, and they eventually decided to make it as nonpartisan a seat of government as possible — hence not granting full representation.

“This is not a case when people hadn’t thought about it,” Turley testified. “There was debate.”

Despite Republican opposition, the bill passed Judiciary in a 21-13 vote on Thursday. And previously it had passed the Oversight and Government Reform Committee in a bipartisan 24-5 vote.

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