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House Approves D.C. Voting Rights Legislation

With a pair of votes this afternoon, House Democrats fought off Republican opposition and passed legislation giving the District of Columbia a full vote in the chamber. The first bill, the District of Columbia House Voting Rights Act, grants D.C. residents a full-voting Representative while also providing an at-large seat to Utah, which just missed getting another Congressional seat after the 2000 Census. That bill passed 241-177. The House then took up a second, technical bill to cover the costs associated with the new seats; it passed 216-203. “Today, the House of Representatives said, ‘You’re a part of this country 100 percent,” Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said after the bills passed. He later added: “As we fight for democracy in Baghdad, we have fought today for democracy in Washington, D.C.” Upon passage, the language of the second bill was attached to the first and will now be sent to the Senate, where the outlook remains unclear. In addition, White House aides have said they would recommend a veto on the bill. Supporters are pinning their hopes on the support of Utah Sens. Bob Bennett (R) and Orrin Hatch (R), as well as longtime D.C. voting rights advocate Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.). While Lieberman remains enthusiastic, there are concerns that Hatch’s support might be wavering. In particular, Hatch has said he is concerned about the at-large seat that would go to Utah, which some opponents of the measure have called unconstitutional. But at a press conference following the passage of the bills, Congressional leaders said they are confident that the bill will not only pass the Senate, but that President Bush will sign it into law. “We have to take care of that behind closed doors,” said Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), who sponsored the legislation with D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D). “But I think they’ll be with us.” Utah Rep. Chris Cannon (R) said he expected the Senate would defer to the House on the measure. “This is about us and how we govern ourselves,” he added. Support could also come in unlikely places. Former Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.), who has spent much of his time lobbying for the bill, told reporters that Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.) has said in private meetings that he will support the bill. Today’s vote was the second time in a month that the D.C. voting rights issue has hit the House floor. Democrats were forced to split the original voting rights bill into two separate but connected measures after Republicans, led by Judiciary ranking member Lamar Smith (Texas), introduced a motion to recommit that would revoke the longtime D.C. gun ban. By attaching a tax provision to the original bill, Democrats opened the door for Republicans to introduce the gun language. Democrats then pulled the bill from the floor, fearing some moderate Members would feel obligated to vote to revoke the gun ban. The debate today on D.C. voting rights mirrored the March debate, with supporters arguing there is an obligation to give District residents Congressional representation and opponents saying the measure is unconstitutional. On the House floor, Davis said Republicans represent a party that has long fought to increase Congressional representation for all Americans and should get behind this vote. “There is still time to pass a Republican vote,” Davis said. “A vote to increase representation and preserve our party’s heritage.” Smith tried once again today to tie up the bill with a motion to commit, this time to require expedited judicial review if the bill becomes law. The motion failed in a 193-227 vote. Many Republicans also complained that the manner in which the bill returned to the floor was unfair, particularly because if the first bill passed and the second did not, the first bill would fail. “It is unconscionable to be able to lay a bill on the table that already passed,” said Rep. Phil English (R-Pa.), who voted for the first measure but not the second. “It’s a shame that a bill that supports Democracy is being brought up in such an undemocratic manner,” Smith said. The connection of the two bills isn’t unheard of, Democratic sources pointed out. There were at least three times in the Republican-controlled 109th Congress that measures passed the House in similar fashion, including for an ethics reform measure. The passage appeared to be a personal victory for Norton, who has fought for D.C. representation since taking office in 1992. She spent much of her day on the House floor, conferring with Members and getting up to speak several times. At the press conference, she thanked nearly everyone in attendance, from city leaders to grass-roots groups to her fellow Members. Recalling a recent Congressional Black Caucus meeting she had with Bush, Norton promised she’d work to see the bill became law. At that White House meeting, Norton explained the bill to Bush and told him about the number of Congressional scholars — including former assistant Attorney General Viet Dinh, who helped craft the USA PATRIOT Act — who have said it is constitutional. “When I told him about that, he said, ‘Wow,’” Norton recalled. “Well, I’m going to hold him to that wow.”

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