- The Washington Times - Friday, February 27, 2009

The Senate approved the D.C. Voting Rights Act on Thursday, though an amendment that would scale back the city’s tough anti-gun laws complicated its outlook.

The 61-37 vote cleared what has been the largest obstacle to at least a three-decade-long quest by D.C. residents to gain voting representation in Congress.

The bill would add two seats to the House of Representatives — one from the largely Democratic District and one from Republican-leaning Utah, increasing the number in the House for the first time since 1913.

But the bill’s ultimate success was thrown into question by an amendment attached to the legislation that would peel back some of the District’s strict gun control laws. The amendment was sponsored by Sen. John Ensign, Nevada Republican, and passed the Senate with a 62-36 vote.

The House is expected to vote next week. If a bill is passed in the House that does not include the gun-rights amendment, which is likely, the House and Senate versions would go to conference committee, where members of both houses would iron out differences.

The final version would then have to be approved by the House and Senate before going to President Obama.

The president has expressed support for the bill and was a co-sponsor of a similar measure in 2007.

Democrats were excited that the bill passed the Senate in any form. “I would like to say something that isn’t very senatorial. Yes,” said Joe Lieberman, Connecticut independent, during a news conference. “This is a victory for the 600,000 residents of the District of Columbia that have been denied representation.”

Mr. Lieberman’s exuberance was matched by a noticeably emotional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s nonvoting House member.

“Throughout my 18 years in Congress, I have done nothing but stood in the shoes of the residents of the District of Columbia,” said Mrs. Norton, a Democrat. “I stand with the residents of this city who have lived without the vote and died without the vote.”

“We are not taking anything for granted,” said Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, a Democrat. “This is one step further to full voting rights. This is one step further toward D.C. residents having the rights that every other American citizen has.”

The joy of the moment was short-lived, though, as advocates focused on the gun-law amendment.

“I consider it to be an unnatural appendage,” Mr. Lieberman said before Mrs. Norton cut off any further questions about it.

Opponents of Mr. Ensign’s amendment decried it as careless on the Senate floor.

“I believe this amendment is reckless, irresponsible and will lead to more violence on the streets of the District,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat.

When a D.C. voting rights bill cleared the House in 2007, before being defeated in the Senate, Republicans successfully stalled the measure for a month by trying to add language to repeal much of the District’s gun ban, which has since been struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court.

“Our opponents thought that they would either defeat our bill or diminish our victory by adding this gun bill amendment,” said Ilir Zherka of the advocacy group DC Vote. “They didn’t. We passed a significant hurdle in our fight for full democracy for D.C. residents.

“If anything, this amendment has strengthened our resolve to continue to fight for the rights of Washingtonians,” Mr. Zherka said. “Congress repeatedly treats the District as a testing ground for flawed, dangerous legislation. This has to stop. And we’ll keep fighting to ensure that the bill signed into law is not tainted by this amendment.”

The bill picked up another amendment from Sen. Jim DeMint, South Carolina Republican, that would prevent the Federal Communications Commission from reinstating the Fairness Doctrine, a policy instituted in 1949 that required broadcasters to present controversial issues in a balanced manner. The FCC abolished the rule in 1987.

Both amendments could be removed while in conference.

The additional House seat for Utah was included to gain Republican support. Utah now has one Democratic representative and two Republicans and narrowly missed picking up a fourth seat based on the 2000 census. Maintaining that fourth seat would depend on the outcome of the 2010 census.

The D.C. and Utah representatives would be seated at the start of the next session in January 2011.

Critics say the bills violate Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution, which states that “representatives and direct taxes shall be apportioned among the several states.”

The District is not considered a state and is largely overseen by Congress.

“The first and last duty of a U.S. senator is to support and defend the U.S. Constitution. By opposing the legislation before us, I believe I’m doing both,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican.

Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, tried unsuccessfully to kill the legislation Wednesday by calling for a constitutional point of order to question the legality of granting the District a House seat. The move failed by a 62-36 vote.

Supporters say Congress has the power to give the District a representative because of Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution, which states that Congress must “exercise exclusive legislation in all cases whatsoever” over the District.

Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. said this week that Utah will join the District in court if the D.C. Voting Rights Act faces legal challenges after passing Congress.

“It will be debated constitutionally by the Supreme Court, and I think it will get a rigorous hearing; hopefully, a quick hearing,” said Mr. Huntsman, a Republican. “You have an injustice in that you have people paying taxes that aren’t represented. And in our state, you have injustice in that we have a whole lot of people that are underrepresented.”

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