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D.C. Bill Drops At-Large Seat

The battle to give the District of Columbia a full vote in Congress got a kick-start in the Senate on Tuesday, as Sens. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) introduced compromise legislation to grant both D.C. and Utah a seat in the House.

The legislation mirrors a bill passed by the House in April but is different in one key way: Instead of granting Utah an at-large seat — as the House version did — the Senate measure gives the Utah Legislature the power to launch a redistricting process to create a fourth Congressional seat.

That change helps erase concerns raised by several Members in both chambers — including Hatch — over the constitutionality of giving Utahns an at-large Representative.

“I think this is a good way to settle this,” Hatch said.

The bill also has the new Representatives taking office in the 111th Congress, giving Utah time to pass a new Congressional map.

Lieberman, the chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, promised that the panel would hold a hearing on the bill sometime this month. A longtime D.C. voting rights supporter, Lieberman repeatedly praised Hatch for joining the effort, which he said could be the tipping point for the bill.

“I am certain his co-sponsorship will lead to the breakthrough we’ve been searching for,” he said.

Crafted originally by Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), the bill is a compromise measure giving Democratic-leaning D.C. a full seat while also granting one to Republican Utah, which just missed getting an additional Representative following the 2000 Census.

It is somewhat ironic that the Senate measure introduced Tuesday includes a provision for a fourth seat, as the initial House bill introduced by Davis and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) in January did.

That bill was modeled on an effort to get a similar measure passed by the House in the 109th Congress. After then-Judiciary Chairman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) raised his concerns about giving an at-large seat to Utah, the state Legislature met in special session to pass a new Congressional map.

But the bill still failed to pass in the House by the end of the 109th Congress. When it was reintroduced with the fourth-seat provision, several House Democrats raised concerns about redistricting so soon after the 2006 elections.

So, a new bill making the Utah seat at-large was introduced.

Now, things come full circle and supporters seemed pleased to have an effort under way in the Senate, with Norton saying she “could not be happier about their decision to move so swiftly.”

“I have worked closely with both Senators over the years and know firsthand their extraordinary skill at getting things done and the respect they enjoy from their colleagues,” she said. “Our bill couldn’t be in better hands.”

Davis echoed those sentiments.

“I trust it will be reported out and passed soon, and the people of Washington, D.C., finally can get the representation in Congress they’ve long deserved,” he said.

Both Senators praised the work of Davis and Norton, who they said laid the groundwork for the entire effort.

“Now Sen. Hatch and I come together in a partnership I hope will achieve similar success,” Lieberman said.

The measure still faces big obstacles. While the Senate version may settle the issue of an at-large seat, it does not deal with critics’ larger concern that granting a full House vote to a non-state is unconstitutional.

“This is not a new debate,” Hatch said. “Del. Norton and Congressman Davis have made persuasive arguments to me. They note that in many respects Congress has treated the District as a state for many years. … These arguments lead me to believe it is only fair that we proceed with this legislation, and, if it becomes necessary, let the courts decide.”

Still, because of those constitutional concerns, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has publicly declared his opposition to the bill, and there has been some talk that the legislation could face a filibuster. Plus, White House aides have said they would recommend that President Bush veto the bill.

“I hope that nobody will filibuster this,” Hatch said. “Frankly, it needs to be voted up or down.”

Hatch added that the president will be “hard-pressed to veto it.”

In the meantime, Lieberman said supporters are taking small steps, focusing on getting the votes needed to get the measure through committee.

Ilir Zherka, executive director of the advocacy group DC Vote, said if the bill passes the Senate, it is likely that the two chambers can come together on a final, solid measure to send to the White House.

But advocates are taking their efforts one step at a time, he said.

“We’re going to focus on the Senate, focus on getting co-sponsorship, focus on getting critical Republican support,” Zherka said.

Zherka also praised Hatch for joining the effort.

“His support and engagement will significantly increase the appeal of the bill in the Senate,” he said.

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