The bill that would grant the District of Columbia a full vote in the House will get its first big test in the Senate today — but it will be on friendly territory.
As of Monday, eight witnesses were scheduled to testify today before the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, chaired by Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.), the bill’s primary sponsor. And Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), the leading co-sponsor, will be among those testifying.
Hatch is seen as the key ally of voting rights supporters, who have called his backing — along with that of fellow Utah Sen. Bob Bennett (R) — a turning point in their effort.
“I think that these two Senators are the whole ballgame,” said D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), who cosponsored the House version of the bill with Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.). “They not only have disproportionate power here, they have the whole power, because of the Senate tradition of deferring on bills to home state Senators when no other state is involved.”
But even with that support, the measure still faces major hurdles. In a March 20 memo, the Senate Republican Policy Committee cited problems with the House version of the bill. Many Members continue to question whether it is constitutional to give a non-state Congressional representation, and those questions are likely to be brought up today, perhaps by Governmental Affairs ranking member Susan Collins (R-Maine).
“I am sympathetic to the goal of providing District residents with representation in the House,” Collins said Monday. “The question is how to do so in a way that is consistent with the Constitution.”
Insiders said the bill does not have the 60 votes needed to avoid a filibuster. And even if it passes the Senate, White House advisers have said they would recommend President Bush veto the bill.
But supporters maintain the bill is constutional, citing the District Clause, which courts have said gives Congress the right to extend certain privileges reserved for states to the District.
“Members of Congress raising constiutional questions becomes an excuse to deny the vote to Utah and D.C.,” Norton said.
Under the District of Columbia House Voting Rights Act, Democratic-leaning D.C. would get a full vote in the House while largely Republican Utah would get a fourth Representative. (The Beehive State just missed getting another Member after the 2000 Census.)
The House version of the bill passed in April, but tax language included in the legislation automatically sent it over to the Senate Finance Committee.
Rather than try to push the measure through that committee, Lieberman introduced a separate version, similar to the one passed by the House but with one key difference: Rather than giving Utah an at-large seat, as the House voted to do, Utah would draw up four districts.
Plus, the new Members would begin their terms at the start of the 111th Congress, eliminating the need for a special election. Those changes were key to getting Hatch on board.
“In the proposed Senate legislation, I insisted that Utah be required to redistrict to provide for the new seat,” Hatch said in his floor statement introducing the bill. “I believe that Utah’s legislators deserve the freedom to determine their Representatives’ districts without unjustified intrusion or mandate of the federal government.”
Today’s hearing will just involve testimony and there is not yet a markup scheduled, a committee aide confirmed. But supporters of the measure said they expect one soon, especially since Lieberman has been a longtime supporter of D.C. voting rights.
“He has kept his promises to move expeditiously,” said Ilir Zherka, the executive director of advocacy group DC Vote. “I think [the hearing] will be followed by a markup. … We’re definitely optimistic about our chances.”
Two panels of witnesses will testify today. First up will be the political backers of the legislation: Hatch, Norton, Davis (who originally crafted the Utah-D.C. compromise) and D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty (D), who has said obtaining voting rights is one of the top priorities of his administration.
A spokeswoman said Monday that Fenty “will reiterate his position on the importance of the bill and why District residents should be represented in Congress.”
The constitutionality of the bill will be weighed in the second panel. Former Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.), who has spent extensive time lobbying for the bill in both chambers, will no doubt urge the panel to pass the legislation, which he has labeled a civil rights issue.
Also testifying will be Georgetown Law Professor Viet Dinh, who helped craft the Patriot Act and has testified several times before the House on the constitutionality of the D.C. bill, and Wade Henderson, president for the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.
The opposition will come from George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley, who earlier appeared at a House hearing to argue the bill is unconstitutional.