With strong bipartisan backing, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on Wednesday gave the green light to the measure that would grant Washington, D.C., a full vote in the House of Representatives.
Ranking Member Susan Collins (Maine) and fellow Republican Sens. Norm Coleman (Minn.) and George Voinovich (Ohio) crossed the aisle in a 9-1 vote to pass the District of Columbia House Voting Rights Act, which now heads to the Senate floor for a vote.
“The constitutionality of this legislation is a close call,” Collins said. “But it is best left up to the courts, and not this committee.”
Sponsored by Governmental Affairs Chairman Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) and Utah GOP Sens. Orrin Hatch and Bob Bennett, the measure grants Democratic-leaning D.C. a House vote while also giving one to largely Republican Utah, which just missed getting an additional Representative after the 2000 Census.
Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has promised to bring the measure to the floor, and an aide reiterated Wednesday that the Senator is committed to the bill.
But it likely will have to wait until July at the earliest for a floor vote because the energy bill, defense matters and possibly immigration are likely to tie up the remaining weeks in June.
When the bill does reach the floor, passage will not be easy, as a significant number of Republicans remain staunchly opposed to the measure, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.).
A McConnell aide said Wednesday that the Senator views the measure as “blatantly unconstitutional” because it grants a non-state Congressional representation.
Supporters argue that the Constitution’s District Clause grants Congress the power to give D.C. such representation. But those supporters admit they do not yet have the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster — although it is unclear whether a cloture vote will even be necessary.
“I haven’t heard anything on that,” the McConnell aide said in reference to the possibility of a filibuster. “But we’ll see what happens.”
Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) was the only committee member to officially vote against the measure on Wednesday, but the most outspoken critic was Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who left the hearing early, leaving Collins to cast his “no” vote by proxy.
The seven-term Alaska Senator likened giving D.C. a vote in the House to granting the city the rights of a city-state, which Stevens argued has destroyed past societies.
Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), who designed the basic framework of the measure and co-sponsored it alongside Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) in the House, urged his Republican colleagues to consider the bill.
“I would hope a matter of this significance, involving the most basic, most treasured civil rights of our fellow citizens, would be beyond the prospect of a filibuster,” Davis said. “This has been too long in coming.”
Further obstacles remain, most notably the threat of a presidential veto, which White House aides have said they would recommend, citing constitutionality concerns.
Despite those threats, supporters of the bill contend it is unlikely Bush would use that power, as he has vetoed only two bills in his six years as commander in chief.
“The momentum behind the bill, the enthusiasm of so many to achieve this great goal and the reasonable provisions within the bill all give me great hope the president will, in the end, sign it,” Davis said.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) agreed.
“As both houses of Congress move forward on D.C. voting rights, it is plain that this is as much a moral issue as it is a political one,” Hoyer said. “I would hope that the White House would recognize it as such and reconsider its opposition to this critical legislation.”
The committee passed two amendments Wednesday that could help ease some Republican fears about the measure.
Both were introduced by Collins. The first clarifies that the bill is intended only to provide D.C. representation in the House, and the second would expedite any legal challenge against the measure should it be signed into law.
Democrats on the committee unanimously voted yes for the two amendments.
“It seems likely that it is going to be challenged in court,” Collins said, adding that it would be destructive for the overall effort if the measure is tied up in courts for years.
“I think this bill will survive those challenges,” said Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), a co-sponsor of the measure. “But I think it’s important we move quickly.”
Supporters praised the committee for moving the bill forward, with many giving the panel a standing ovation following the markup.
Norton thanked the Senate for acting quickly on the measure, calling it “a bill that could have lingered for months and months.”
Ilir Zherka, executive director of the advocacy group DC Vote, said the committee vote gives the effort “incredible momentum heading to the floor.”
D.C. Shadow Rep. Mike Panetta (D), who would lose his Capitol Hill gig if the measure passes, said he was impressed with Coleman’s support in particular.
During the hearing, the Senator said that, as a former urban mayor, he understands “cities are impacted by what the federal government does.”
“I think his words will really speak well with others,” Panetta said.
For D.C. Shadow Sen. Paul Strauss (D), the markup showcased a past voting rights protest coming full circle.
During his opening remarks, Voinovich recalled how he once hosted delegates from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
When the delegation headed to the Potomac River for a tour, there were boats in the water protesting the city’s lack of Congressional representation, leaving the Senator to explain why D.C. citizens did not have a vote in Congress.
“The explanation I gave wasn’t well received,” Voinovich recalled.
Strauss helped organize that demonstration.
“We stalked the delegates all the way down the river. We did know that they were doing that cruise, and it was a deliberate part of the strategy,” he said. “It’s funny, you never know what’s going to be significant or not when the history of all this is written.”