- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The House is expected to vote this week on a bill that would give D.C. residents a full vote in Congress for the first time since 1801.

The bill, which is expected to pass, is a bipartisan effort linking the mostly Democratic District and mostly Republican Utah, providing a new seat in the House for both major parties.

However, the bill’s chances hinge largely on interpretation of specific constitutional clauses by lawmakers and the U.S. Supreme Court. A legal challenge is almost certain if the bill becomes law.

Article 1, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution states: “The House of Representatives shall be composed of members chosen every second year by the people of the several states.”

Article 1, Section 8, Clause 17 — also known as the “District clause” — states that Congress has the power “to exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District (not exceeding ten Miles square) as may, by Cession of particular States, and the acceptance of Congress, become the Seat of the Government of the United States.”

Opponents of the measure say their argument is simple: The District is not a state, and efforts to let it vote as one through the pending legislation directly violate the country’s governing document.

“We oppose this bill because we believe it’s unconstitutional on the basis that the Constitution specifies that only people of the several states elect representatives to the House,” White House spokeswoman Emily Lawrimore said yesterday. “And the District of Columbia is not a state.”

However, proponents of the bill say the “District clause” grants Congress ultimate power over the nation’s capital and provides lawmakers with enough authority to give the city a vote.

“The District clause provides Congress with ample authority to give citizens of the District representation in the House of Representatives,” Viet D. Dinh, a Georgetown University law professor and former assistant attorney general, said in written testimony to the House Judiciary Committee. “That clause provides Congress with extraordinary and plenary power to legislate with respect to the District.”

The District has not had voting rights in Congress since federal lawmakers passed the Organic Act in 1801. Past measures that would have given the District a vote have made it to the House floor twice.

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.

Voting rights supporters last week won several victories when two House committees endorsed the current bill, clearing the way for the entire chamber to vote on the measure.

Advocates said yesterday that they are optimistic about passing the measure, despite the constitutional concerns and White House opposition.

“It emboldens our supporters,” said Ilir Zherka, executive director of the advocacy group D.C. Vote. “The White House coming out in opposition just makes people more angry. We’re still on track.”

Still, while Democratic House leaders have pledged to pass the bill, its prospects are less certain in the Senate.

Supporters say the bill’s passage in that chamber is contingent on the backing of Utah’s two Republican senators — Orrin G. Hatch and Robert F. Bennett — and how much support they can elicit from their colleagues.

But Mr. Hatch, Utah’s senior senator, also has expressed concerns about the constitutionality of the at-large seat for his state.

Some officials have said the seat would violate the “one man, one vote” doctrine established in previous case law and constitutional arguments.

“Utah voters would have more voting power compared to the voters of every other state, which is prohibited by the Constitution,” said Rep. Lamar Smith, Texas Republican, who last week opposed the bill in the House Judiciary Committee.

Hatch spokesman Peter Carr said the senator, Mr. Bennett and Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut independent, last year sent a letter to Senate leadership supporting an earlier version of the bill that created a fourth seat for Utah, based on a redistricting map created by the Utah Legislature.

“But that’s a different bill,” Mr. Carr said. Mr. Hatch ‘hasn’t made up his mind about what to do about it yet. …You want to make sure what you pass will pass constitutional muster.”

Bennett spokeswoman Emily Christensen also said the senator supports the bill but is expecting a long road toward its passage in the Senate.

“The bill isn’t necessarily dead on arrival in the Senate,” she said. “But given the concerns expressed, everyone should be prepared for a tough battle in the Senate.”

If the bill comes to the Senate, officials said it would go before the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, chaired by Mr. Lieberman.

Lieberman spokeswoman Leslie Phillips said the chairman has not determined whether an immediate hearing will be held or whether the measure will hold if it comes to the committee.

“He’s basically weighing all his options,” she said.

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