Thursday, March 5, 2009

A bill granting the District of Columbia full voting rights in the House of Representatives is on hold as House Democrats try to figure out how to fend off two proposed pro-gun amendments without exposing Democrats from conservative districts to the wrath of the gun lobby.

The amendments have put House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and other top Democrats in a bind because they don’t want to pass a bill that relaxes gun laws in the District. The Senate passed the bill with such an amendment last week.

The pro-gun amendments offered by Rep. Dean Heller, Nevada Republican, and Rep. Steve King, Iowa Republican, caused the bill to be pulled abruptly from consideration on Tuesday by House Democrats. Leaders are reluctant to move the bill forward until they find a way to prevent the amendments from coming to a vote on the House floor.

”Our leadership are on the horns of a dilemma,” said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, Virginia Democrat and co-sponsor of the bill. He said the pro-gun amendments might make the bill easier to pass in committee but tougher to pass on the House floor, where “there are sufficient numbers of Democrats … that would find [the gun amendments] unacceptable.”

House Democratic leaders have said the National Rifle Association is a major influence on some pro-gun Democrats on the Rules Committee, who may have agreed to attach the gun amendments to the bill.

“Leadership thought there was understanding with the NRA to keep the bill clean,” Mr. Connolly said. “Obviously there was a misunderstanding.”

The NRA’s chief lobbyist, Chris W. Cox, said his organization has no stance on the gun amendments because no amendment has yet been attached to the bill. But he said the NRA would “maintain all options on legislation that adversely or positively affect Second Amendment rights and will communicate those positions at the appropriate time.”

If the House bill is passed with the gun amendments, Democrats would be unable to purge the pro-gun language in conference committee, where members of both houses iron out their differences, because gun rights language would exist in both the House and the Senate versions.

The bill that comes out of the conference committee would have to be approved by the House and Senate before going to President Obama.

The president has expressed support for the voting rights bill and was a co-sponsor of a similar measure in 2007, though it is not clear whether he would support the bill with gun amendments attached.

House Democratic leaders had planned to kill the amendments in the Rules Committee to avoid a floor vote that threatened to split the caucus. But the NRA intervened, saying it would count the committee votes in members’ gun-rights score card.

The committee decides how each bill will proceed in the House, including how much time will be devoted to debate and which amendments could be added.

D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat, the bill’s chief sponsor and the District’s nonvoting representative, said that pulling the bill was “entirely necessary in order to do the complicated work in both strategy and contacting Democratic members,” but she still expects the bill to proceed shortly.

When a D.C. voting rights bill was taken up and ultimately approved by the House in 2007, before being defeated in the Senate, Republicans stalled the measure for a month in the House 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.

Supporters thought that the strength of Democrats in Congress would be able to prevent a similar move this time.

“Our understanding was this would be much more difficult than has played out for gun advocates,” said Jaline Quinto, a spokeswoman for D.C. Vote, a voting rights advocacy group in the District. “We are taking some time to regroup and build proponents. We are working to make sure a clean bill is passed out of the House.”

Many of the bill’s supporters in Congress are uncertain whether they are willing to give up strict gun laws in the District in exchange for a full D.C. House seat, and may defer to the wishes of the District’s elected representatives.

“I would look to the leaders of the District of Columbia for guidance. This is an issue they worked long and hard on,” said Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, Maryland Democrat. “I would look to Mrs. Norton and Mayor Fenty for guidance. If this compromise is something they can live with, we’ll go along with it.”

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, said he “remains committed to working with the Democratic leadership, Congresswoman Norton, President Obama and all other supporters of D.C. voting rights to address the remaining challenges so we can bring this historic legislation to the floor as soon as possible.”

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