- The Washington Times - Monday, February 23, 2009

This is what they’ve been waiting for.

Buoyed by the election of President Obama and additional Democratic gains in Congress, backers of a bill granting the District full representation in the House perceive Senate action this week as the turning point in a decades-long quest.

“If it goes through the Senate, I think it will become law,” said former Virginia Rep. Tom Davis, a moderate Republican who served roughly 14 years in Congress and backed the city’s effort.

The District of Columbia House Voting Rights Act of 2009 is expected to be debated Monday in the Senate, then come up for a crucial preliminary vote Tuesday. A final Senate vote could come before Friday.

The bill provides one full House vote for the heavily Democratic District and an additional seat for Republican-leaning Utah in an attempt at a bipartisan compromise on the issue. In 2007, a similar bill fell three votes shy of advancing in the Senate after passing the House on a 241-177 vote.

Bill supporters are optimistic this year largely because the House bill, now pending in a subcommittee, passed in the chamber last year. And Democrats gained additional Senate seats in the November elections.

Democrats control 58 Senate seats when counting two independents who caucus with the party. Mr. Obama, a Democrat, also is on record for supporting the bill and co-sponsored the Senate version in 2007 - when Democrats controlled 51 seats and he was an Illinois senator.

“Getting through the Senate means that we will this year be able to get this bill enacted,” said Ilir Zherka, executive director of the advocacy group D.C. Vote. “We’re trying to figure out who we have and who we need to continue to reach.”

D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton - the city’s House representative who can vote in committee but not on the floor - thinks supporters have more than the 60 votes needed to advance the bill, though the undecided election in Minnesota and the potential absence of Sen. Ted Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, due to illness could cut the margin.

“We do think we have the votes this time,” said Mrs. Norton, a Democrat. “In the Senate [in 2007], we genuinely felt that there were a number of senators who would vote with us who did not.”

If approved, the legislation would grant the District a full vote in the 112th Congress, Mr. Zherka said. However, the bill still faces another fight from Senate Republicans who contend that the measure is unconstitutional.

They say the Constitution clearly states that House members must be chosen “by the people of the several states” and that the District is not a state.

“If the residents of the District are to get a member for themselves, there remains a remedy: amend the Constitution,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said after the legislation died in his chamber in 2007.

However, proponents of D.C. voting rights say the Constitution’s “District Clause” grants Congress ultimate power over the nation’s capital and provides lawmakers with enough authority to give the city a vote.

Congressional Republicans have used creativity in the past to try to kill the bill.

Before the measure cleared the House in 2007, Rep. Lamar Smith, Texas Republican, introduced a motion to add language to the bill to repeal much of the District’s gun ban, which has since been struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The maneuver forced conservative, pro-gun Democrats to either vote for the motion, which would effectively kill the bill once it was sent back to committee, or vote against the motion, which would have been perceived as being in favor of strict gun control.

It also sparked a roughly month-long delay before the bill eventually passed the chamber that April.

“It’s just a tragedy that people have played partisan politics with this,” said Mr. Davis, who was a lead sponsor of the 2007 House bill. “I wish [D.C.] were a Republican city. It’d make it a lot easier, but it wouldn’t change my opinion.”

An aide to a senior Republican said party members will likely try to amend the bill and again argue that it violates the Constitution.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, Tennessee Republican and chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, said “the most logical alternative for giving D.C. residents full representation in Congress would be to give the District back to Maryland” or “keep the District as a separate entity, but allow D.C. residents to vote in Maryland.”

Sen. Jim DeMint, South Carolina Republican, said Thursday he plans to introduce an amendment that would attach a bill relevant to the Federal Communications Commission.

Past attempts to give the District voting rights made it to the House floor twice, and this week will mark just the second time in roughly 30 years that the full Senate considers such a measure.

In 1978, a constitutional amendment that would have given the District representation in the House and the Senate was passed by Congress but failed to be ratified by the required number of states.

In 1993, a measure granting the District statehood was easily defeated in the House, by a 277-153 vote. This time, supporters hope, things will be different. “The administration … is confident that the bill will be met with great support in the Senate, putting the District one step closer to achieving full voting rights,” said D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, a Democrat.

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