D.C. tries again for a vote in Congress

Every car registered in the District of Columbia tells the story: "Taxation Without Representation," the license plates read.

Indeed, the more than 580,000 residents of the District of Columbia do not have voting representation in the US House or the Senate.

Rep. Tom Davis (R) of Virginia is trying to change that, and if his plan succeeds, D.C. will have a vote – at least in the House. But the fight just got more difficult.

The White House has come out against legislation, years in the making, that would grant D.C. a full vote in Congress and would also grant Utah an additional seat.

The permanent two-seat increase, which would boost the House from 435 to 437 seats, represents an attempt at partisan balance in the effort to grant District residents the voting rights that Americans living in the 50 states have always enjoyed. In elections, D.C. votes heavily Democratic, while Utah leans Republican. According to the 2000 census, Utah is next in line to receive another member of Congress.

Late last week, after the bill had cleared two House committees and was scheduled for a vote in the full House later this week, a White House spokesman said that the Bush administration opposes the bill on constitutional grounds. According to the Constitution, only "people of the several states" elect members of the House.

But proponents of the legislation argue that under the Constitution's "District Clause," Congress has broad decisionmaking power over the federal enclave, and can therefore grant D.C. a vote.

Some high-powered conservative voices, including former independent counsel Kenneth Starr and former Assistant Attorney General Viet Dinh, have declared the D.C. Voting Rights Act constitutional.

But in announcing its opposition to the bill on Friday, the White House appears to be trying to halt the measure's momentum and put Republicans members on notice not to go along with their Democratic colleagues. Even if the bill passes the Democratic-controlled House as expected, it faces a steeper climb in the Senate. There, the slim Democratic majority would find it extremely difficult to reach the 60 votes needed to halt debate and bring the measure to a vote.

At heart, analysts say, the White House fears that the addition of a D.C. vote in the House would create momentum toward adding two D.C. members to the Senate – which would almost certainly bring two more Democrats to that chamber. There could be no Senate version of the D.C.-Utah compromise, which, in fact, is somewhat advantageous to the Republicans. If Utah were to gain another House seat, it would also gain another electoral vote. D.C. would remain at three electoral votes.

Advocates for a District vote vow to keep fighting. They have planned a voting rights march on April 16, D.C. Emancipation Day, which commemorates the day in 1862 when President Lincoln abolished slavery in the District, nine months before he signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

"As I have learned the history of Washington, D.C., I'm really appalled," says Ilir Zherka, executive director of the advocacy group DC Vote. "This is a country that has allowed the capital of the United States to represent the worst part of our democracy. This is the place where we allowed slavery to flourish and then segregation to flourish and now this."

There has been no organized opposition to giving D.C. a vote, probably because the movement in favor of such rights – including some who want outright statehood – has failed to catch fire in a broad way over the years. Before 1964, District residents were not even allowed to vote for president, but the 23rd Amendment to the Constitution changed that. In 1971, D.C. was granted a nonvoting delegate to Congress, a position currently filled by Eleanor Holmes Norton (D).

In 1973, Congress approved the District of Columbia Home Rule Act, which granted D.C. residents the right to elect their own mayor and city council.

In 1961, Sen. Prescott Bush (R) of Connecticut – father and grandfather of the two presidents Bush – stood in favor of a constitutional amendment that would give D.C. representation in both the US House and Senate. He noted that D.C.'s population then exceeded that of 11 states. Today, only Wyoming is less populous.

Mark Plotkin, a longtime observer of D.C. politics and commentator on the local WTOP radio, acknowledges that the issue has low visibility nationally, but that the House vote will put it on the map. Still, Mr. Plotkin knows the battle for a vote won't be fought there.

"The real story here is the Senate; what is the commitment and intensity of [Orrin] Hatch and [Robert] Bennett?" Plotkin says, referring to Utah's two Republican senators. Both men support the House legislation, but the question is whether they will fight hard for it in the Senate.

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