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D.C. Voting Rights Proposal Continues to Idle

D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) is effusive about 2009 being the year that Congress will finally pass her hallmark legislation, the District of Columbia House Voting Rights Act. But it’s late October and even House Democratic leaders don’t seem to know how that can happen.

During a Wednesday awards ceremony honoring former Sen. Edward Brooke (R-Mass.) — and with House and Senate Democratic leaders in attendance — Norton declared that Congress “will give voting rights to the people of the District of Columbia this year.—

“I’ve got a viable proposal. It has been vetted. I have found several different ways to get this bill done,— Norton said later. “I have had very good conversations with House and Senate leaders.—

But senior Democratic aides say the issue hasn’t come up in recent leadership or Caucus meetings. And an aide to House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said that while leadership is looking at different approaches to passing the bill, nobody is sure how to proceed.

“At this point, there doesn’t seem to be a solution that’s emerged as a winning strategy,— Hoyer spokeswoman Stephanie Lundberg said.

Less than a year ago, District residents seemed poised to get their first-ever Representative in Congress after decades of protests, political negotiating and repeated disappointment.

But in May, the bill’s progress came to a halt thanks to a House amendment that would loosen gun laws for the city.

Under pressure from the National Rifle Association, conservative Democrats have opposed an amendment-free bill, and D.C. officials balked at the idea of Congressionally imposed gun laws.

The bill has been stalled ever since. In the meantime, Norton has pitched several options to party leaders for moving the bill, all of which she said are thoroughly researched and based on precedents in which the House and Senate were able to pass difficult bills. Norton would not discuss her proposals, however, calling it “catastrophic— to reveal her strategy to opponents of the bill.

Norton would say, however, that all of the approaches “are gearing toward this year— for the bill’s passage.

Most recently, proponents of the voting rights measure were hopeful that it might catch a ride on the Defense spending bill during conference negotiations. But top appropriators have cast doubts on the likelihood of the two bills being commingled.

“It’s not likely,— Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense Chairman John Murtha (D-Pa.) said Tuesday.

Murtha said that decision remains with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). House Democratic appropriators are open to putting the D.C. bill into the Defense bill, Murtha said, but Reid appears to be resistant to the idea.

“I think the Senate has balked at it. They’ve got enough problems with health care,— Murtha said.

Norton maintains that “there is no reason for it not to happen— in the Defense bill. But if that falls through, Norton said she has presented leadership with several other ways “to get it done this year.—

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus have plenty of hope that party leaders will find a way to advance the D.C. voting rights bill this year, a key issue to the caucus. But none would say they expected action in the near term.

“We’ve been looking at every which way we can do it. So, we’re still looking,— CBC Chairwoman Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) said. “I have to be optimistic that people will see this is the just and right thing to do.—

Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a civil rights icon, said the CBC hasn’t talked about the voting rights bill recently but maintained that all caucus members are committed to moving the bill one way or another.

“We’re trying to find something like we did with the hate crimes bill: Attach it to a bill that must go,— Lewis said.

Ilir Zherka, executive director of the local advocacy group DC Vote, said his group will be watching for “different vehicles— for the bill over the next eight weeks. “We’re trying all avenues to get the bill through,— he said.

Still, Zherka said, if Democratic leaders are unable to advance the bill this year, “We’ve got the rest of the Congress.—

DC Vote recently raised its profile by going after lawmakers for interfering with D.C.’s laws. This week, the group kicked off a series of blog ads attacking Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) for not “minding his own affairs.—

The ad, which is running on liberal blogs around Ensign’s home state, makes a thinly veiled reference to the Nevada Republican’s acknowledged extramarital affair with a former staffer.

“Senator Ensign is focused on DC’s affairs … and his own. Where does Nevada fit in?— reads the ad. “Tell Senator Ensign to focus on NEVADA.—

Emily Yehle contributed to this report.

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