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D.C. gets its ‘voting card back’ (well, sort of)

Now that Democrats are in charge, the rules have changed

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton hasn’t voted in the House chamber in a while. That changed this week. (Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton hasn’t voted in the House chamber in a while. That changed this week. (Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Now that Democrats are in charge again, Eleanor Holmes Norton got her “voting card back finally,” she joked.

It was a big week in Congress for the delegate from D.C. Her perennial bid to win statehood for the District pulled in a record number of co-sponsors. And for the first time in more than eight years, she got to vote in the House chamber.

Well, sort of. She’s still can’t say “yea” or “nay” on bills in their final forms. But even “nonvoting members” of the House like her can vote in congressional committees — and Democrats just happen to have a more expansive view than Republicans of what that means.

When Speaker Nancy Pelosi took over the House this month, the party invited nonvoting members to once again fully participate in what’s called the Committee of the Whole, which is essentially just the entire membership of the House meeting to debate and amend legislation.

So when the body went into that mode on Wednesday, Norton was able to vote “yes” on an amendment barring disaster relief funds from being used to build a wall at the southern border.

If it was a big deal for Norton, it was an even bigger deal for her fellow nonvoting members. Three of them cast a vote in the House chamber for the very first time: Jenniffer Gonzalez-Colon of Puerto Rico, Stacey Plaskett of the Virgin Islands and Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan of the Northern Mariana Islands.

(The two remaining nonvoting members — Aumua Amata Coleman Radewagen of American Samoa and Michael F.Q. San Nicolas of Guam — were busy doing other things.) 

The idea of the delegates and resident commissioner being able to vote in the Committee of the Whole first came about as a result of a House rule change, pushed by Norton herself, back in 1993.

It wasn’t without controversy. Republicans initially offered an amendment to the rules package to strip out the language and create a task force to study the issue. The amendment failed. They would later challenge the voting procedure in federal court and lose.

When Republicans took over in 1995, and again in 2011, they rolled back the controversial provision. But when Democrats won back the chamber in 2007, and again in 2019, they reinserted it.

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