Holding back no punches, Republican leaders are invoking the legacy of Abraham Lincoln, “the shackles” of slavery and the historical progressive beginnings of the Republican Party to lobby their own in a local civil rights cause.
None other than conservative Michael S. Steele, former Republican lieutenant governor of Maryland, and J.C. Watts, a former Republican representative from Oklahoma, stepped onto center stage to plead with Senate party leaders to pass the D.C. voting rights bill.
“Our elected officials have not always treated Washingtonians, residents of a majority African-American city, kindly or fairly,” Mr. Steele and Mr. Watts wrote in The Washington Times last week. “Connecticut Sen. Prescott Bush, grandfather of the current president, put it this way in 1961: ‘Congress has treated the District with slight consideration. We have treated it like a stepchild, in comparison with the way we have treated other states.’ ”
Edward W. Brooke, the former Republican senator from Massachusetts and author of “Bridging the Divide,” also penned an impassioned plea for D.C. voting rights last week that was delivered to every U.S. senator.
His history-tinged missive noted that he had to leave his segregated hometown (Washington, D.C.) to pursue career opportunities and become “a Lincoln Republican when Democrats were filibustering the civil rights bills.” Despite the “rich rewards” he has received during his 87 years, Mr. Brooke regrets that “I was not able to achieve representation in the Congress, which I served, for the citizens of the city where I was born and nurtured.”
These Republicans’ statements demonstrate that partisan politics has no place in the determination of democracy for American citizens. Especially not when American soldiers, some from the District, are dying to bring democracy elsewhere around the globe.
Traditionally, in this predominantly Democratic city, it falls on that party’s liberal faithful to rally, lobby and even get locked up to gain representation in Congress for more than 500,000 disenfranchised D.C. residents.
Not so this time.
Mr. Steele and Mr. Watts urged their party brethren “to no longer put political expediency or legislative neglect ahead of doing what is right.” Leave it to the Republicans to step up the fight for D.C. voting rights at this watershed moment, the first time in more than 200 years that the Senate will be faced with rectifying this injustice.
On the eve of the Senate’s critical opportunity to vote for passage of the bipartisan-sponsored District of Columbia House Voting Rights Act of 2007, even members of the D.C. Republican Committee have stepped out of the shadows to call on Republican senators to support the bill. The House passed the legislation — co-sponsored by Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, Virginia Republican, and D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat — four months ago.
The bill calls for the Democrat-leaning District to get a vote and Republican-leaning Utah to get an additional House member and thus another vote in the Electoral College. The District would not get representatives in the Senate.
Winning Republican votes today is critical in order to keep the voting rights bill alive. Supporters need 60 affirmatives on a vote to bring the measure to the Senate floor, where it can be debated fully on its merits.
Nail-biting supporters know a Republican filibuster would be fatal. Yet Mr. Steele and Mr. Watts pointedly noted that “no senator has filibustered a voting rights measure since the days of segregation.”
A number of key Republicans have voiced their opposition to the bill, arguing that it is unconstitutional because the District is not a state. Others worry that passage will open the door to efforts to add two D.C. senators. President Bush has said he will veto the bill.
Still, “it’s unfair to paint a broad brush against the Republicans,” said Paul D. Craney, executive director of the D.C. Republican Committee. Mr. Craney said the local party “has been very active and vocal” in the fight for D.C. voting rights. Robert J. Kabel, chairman of the local Republican party, has met with a number of Republican senators.
“We strongly believe that the District Clause of the Constitution, under which the first Republican President and Congress emancipated the slaves in D.C., empowers the Congress to give D.C. voting representation in Congress,” wrote Mr. Kabel and other officers in a letter to Republican senators.
“We do so in the tradition in which the Republican Party was created,” the letter said, going on to describe the legislative process by which Lincoln emancipated D.C. slaves.
Unlike other local Republican organizations that usually do not get involved in policy issues, they bucked that tradition by sending letters to conservative think tanks, pundits and talk-show hosts advising them of the D.C. chapter’s position and soliciting their support, Mr. Craney said.
Longtime Republican supporters of D.C. voting rights include former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Jack Kemp and former Judge Kenneth W. Starr, who contends that Congress has the right to invoke the District Clause in the Constitution to grant the city representation in the House. To date, the only Republican presidential candidate to voice his backing is former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
When democracy is at stake, party labels and loyalty must be set aside.