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With Time Short, D.C. Advocates Rally

With the Senate squarely focused on the Iraq War this week, there’s a growing backlog of issues to be addressed before the August recess. In an attempt to secure floor time for their pet issue, residents of Washington, D.C., will hit Capitol Hill today to convince Senators that the District of Columbia House Voting Rights Act is something that should be a priority.

“When we talk to people, they have a high level of frustration, but also of anger,” said Ilir Zherka, executive director of advocacy group DC Vote, which is organizing the rally. “Their feeling is, ‘It’s time to demand the vote. We want to demand it.’”

Sponsored by Sens. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.), Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Bob Bennett (R-Utah), the measure would grant D.C. a full vote in the House while also giving one to Utah, which just missed gaining another Representative following the 2000 Census.

The measure passed the House in a 241-177 vote in April. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) promised in early June that he would bring the measure to the floor after it passed out of committee. About a week later, the Lieberman-chaired Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee approved the bill in a bipartisan 9-1 vote.

Since then, supporters have lobbied extensively to ensure that the measure has the 60 votes needed to avoid a filibuster. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) repeatedly has referred to the measure as “blatantly unconstitutional” and insiders contend a filibuster remains a possibility.

A Democratic committee aide said Tuesday that it remains unclear when the bill actually will head to the floor, especially since so many other pieces of legislation also are waiting to be brought up.

But after weeks of lobbying by a range of advocates from around the country — including some Republican lobbyists and donors — voting rights supporters said they are confident they are nearing success.

“Our hope is that we are able to go to Sen. Reid very soon and say we believe we have votes to overcome a filibuster, and talk schedule,” Zherka said, adding that getting the bill on the floor before the August recess “is still the goal.”

Added the aide: “We don’t have an [exact] number, but we are very optimistic about where it’s going.”

Although a slew of Republicans have crossed the aisle to support the bill — ranking member Susan Collins (Maine) and Sens. Norm Coleman (Minn.) and George Voinovich (Ohio) voted for the measure in the Governmental Affairs markup — McConnell and other opponents have argued the Constitution allows only states to have full Congressional representation.

White House advisers also have weighed in, saying they would recommend President Bush veto the measure should it reach his desk. But supporters have maintained that the Constitution’s District Clause gives Congress the authority to give D.C. a vote in the House.

In a statement to Roll Call, Hatch said a “clear majority” of Senators support the measure, and he hopes Senators can “vote their conscience on the bill.”

“I have to believe that most of them want to see Americans properly represented in their national legislature,” Hatch said. “There is strong consensus that Congress should grant these rights to citizens in Utah and D.C.”

Hatch and Lieberman also have circulated a “Dear Colleague” letter through the Senate to drum up further support.

On Tuesday, Hatch sent out a follow-up letter, announcing that Walter Smith, executive director of the group DC Appleseed, will be available during a staffers-only meeting on Monday to answer lingering constitutional concerns.

“He has been studying and writing about the District representation issue for years,” Hatch wrote. “I hope this briefing will convince you that Congress may do what Congress should do.”

Although confident that there is strong momentum for the bill, Zherka said it is important that the measure be taken up soon.

“We need to keep this on the front burner for the people who we think are swing votes for us,” Zherka noted.

That’s where the rally comes in, Zherka said. Today at noon — and every Wednesday hereafter — D.C. residents will rally outside the Senate office buildings. Afterward, advocates will head into the office buildings to distribute literature and chat with staffers.

Meanwhile, more than 5,000 lawn signs and 2,000 poster signs have been handed out to D.C. residents reading “I Demand The Vote.”

“I think they’re a strong statement where people stand,” Zherka said. “We kept hearing from people, ‘Enough is enough.’”

DC Vote also recently announced plans for its annual “Champions of Democracy” reception, which will be held in October. Among those the group will honor is Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), who helped craft the House version of the bill and bring bipartisan support.

“He decided to use his political strength to advance a D.C. voting rights bill, and he has used an incredible amount of capital,” Zherka said. “That takes a lot of courage. … We would not be in this position without him.”

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