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Gun Impasse Locks D.C. Vote in Uncertainty

One year ago, the District seemed on the verge of getting its first-ever voting Representative, thanks to a strong Democratic majority in both chambers, a supportive president and a resurgence of motivation among Congressional leaders.

But as the second session begins, the D.C. House Voting Rights Act is exactly where it was 10 months ago: held hostage by a poison-pill amendment that would force Washington, D.C., to repeal many of its restrictions on gun ownership.

Voting rights advocates agree that the legislation needs to pass this year or it risks disappearing altogether.

The bill passed the Senate in February, gaining the needed support of some Republicans because of a provision that gives Utah an extra House seat. But the Republican-leaning state is expected to get that seat in the 2010 Census, leaving Democrats with a quickly depreciating bargaining chip.

“The Utah seat is important,— conceded Ilir Zherka, executive director of DC Vote. “We are very aware of the need to act as quickly as we can so that we can enact a law that fulfills the vision all of us had.—

The District has no vote in Congress, instead relying on a Delegate who can vote only in committee. The voting rights bill would give the city a full seat in the House and give Utah an extra seat, increasing the number of Representatives to 437.

Democratic aides say pushing the bill’s passage will almost certainly mean accepting the gun amendment in some form. A majority of the House — both Republicans and conservative Democrats — support the gun provision and are under pressure from the National Rifle Association to reject an amendment-free bill.

Former Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), who helped craft the bill and garner Republican support while in Congress, said passing the bill is “a question of priority.— The bill has the support to pass the House at any time, he said — if the gun amendment is attached. But if supporters wait until next year, they’ll likely lose the support of vital Senate Republicans, and the bill might stall.

“This window closes at the end of this session and probably well before that,— said Davis, who now works at Deloitte Consulting. “I would take the medicine if that’s what you have to do. It’s not the way it should be done, but given the reality, I would take it with the gun language.—

In June, the bill’s supporters decided to put the voting rights bill on hold rather than accept a compromise on the amendment. The amendment, which was easily attached to the Senate version of the bill, promised to turn a city with strict gun laws into one that would allow residents to own AK-47s.

“We believed we should take the time— to get a clean bill, D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) said in a recent interview. “If we try and fail, then that’s one thing. If we don’t even try, that’s another.—

Norton declined to talk about whether she would support the bill’s passage with the amendment attached. But she added that the bill has “more than enough votes— and “we’re doing all we can to get the floor.—

Voting rights advocates had hoped that Congressional leaders would attach the voting rights act to the Defense spending bill, allowing the legislation to pass the chamber amendment-free. But that effort quickly faded as Congress scrambled to pass all appropriations bills by the end of the year and as the Senate focused on pushing through health care reform.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) still considers the bill a priority, spokeswoman Stephanie Lundberg said. But he won’t push a compromise that doesn’t have the backing of the city.

“Majority Leader Hoyer continues to look for a solution to move this bill forward that has the support of the District, and to work with Congresswoman Norton toward that objective,— Lundberg said.

The city remains divided on whether to accept a compromise with the gun amendment. Zherka said his organization was looking to Hoyer and Norton for guidance.

“People have talked about the possibility of a compromise bill, but I just haven’t seen one so it’s hard to talk about that in absence of something real,— he said. “Our strong preference is to have a clean bill. We also have a strong desire to see the D.C. voting rights act enacted into law.—

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