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D.C. Voting Rights Bill Headed to Senate Floor

A Senate panel moved the District one step closer to full House voting rights after passing the District of Columbia House Voting Rights Act by an 11-1 margin Wednesday.

“Can we scream now?” said an overjoyed Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), minutes after the legislation had been cleared to move to the Senate floor.

The lopsided approval by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee was an important step in the 111th Congress for a bill that was created as a unique political compromise. The lone dissenting vote at the hearing came from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

The bill has widespread support in the House, but it has yet to be voted out of the Judiciary Committee.

The legislation would permanently expand the size of the House by two seats, creating one voting seat in the House for highly Democratic Washington, D.C., and one new seat for heavily Republican Utah, which just missed gaining a seat in the previous Census.

A nearly identical bill passed the House in 2007, only to fall three votes short of overcoming a filibuster in the Senate.

“It’s particularly gratifying to see the Senate go first this time,” Norton said on Wednesday. “It is as if they are making up for stopping us last time by getting to home base even before the House. … This is particularly wonderful because not only did we know we had the votes here, we are sure we have the votes on the Senate floor.”

The D.C. House Voting Rights Act has been the product of years of negotiations among Members and voting rights supporters. While the legislation makes clear that Congress would not be able to create Senate representation for the District, many D.C. residents consider it their best hope for any representation at all.

Still, some statehood advocates decry the bill for not going far enough.

The House has already held one hearing on the bill in the Judiciary Committee, and it appears likely to be on its way to the House floor considering it has the support of Judiciary Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.) and the House Democratic leadership.

Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) has said that he hopes to schedule a vote in the House as soon as possible.

In the Senate, D.C. voting rights advocates have long had the strong support of Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.), who chairs the Governmental Affairs Committee and put the issue on the agenda for the first business meeting of the panel.

But the bill has also picked up important Republican supporters, including Utah Sens. Orrin Hatch and Bob Bennett and Maine Sen. Susan Collins, who serves as ranking member on the Governmental Affairs Committee.

“As a matter of fundamental fairness, I believe that the residents of the District of Columbia should have voting representation in the U.S. House of Representatives,” Collins said on Wednesday. The more difficult question, she added, was how to do that in a manner that is consistent with the Constitution.

Some scholars argue that since D.C. is not a state, it violates the Constitution’s Composition Clause, which stipulates that Representatives must be chosen by “the People of the several States.”

Supporters of the bill expect that issue will be challenged in court if it is eventually passed by Congress.

“I concluded that the constitutionality of this legislation is a close call,” Collins said. “But I believed then, as I do now, that this question is best resolved by the courts and not by this committee,” added Collins, who has pushed for an amendment to the bill that would allow for an expedited judicial review if it were challenged.

But that logic didn’t sit well with McCain.

“I would never operate under the premise of ‘let’s pass it and find out if it’s constitutional or not,’” McCain said. “I don’t like the deal, I think it’s unconstitutional and I will be voting against it.”

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