A drive to give the more than half-million residents of the District of Columbia a vote in Congress came up short in the Senate on Tuesday. It fell three votes shy of the 60 needed to overcome a threatened filibuster and begin debate.
But the bill garnered more Republican support than it has in 30 years of discussion on the issue. Its backers pledged to try again -- if not in this session, then in a new Congress in which Democratic gains could spell the difference.
“I feel strongly about D.C. voting rights,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). Saying that there are “a lot of other things crying for attention” in the Senate, he explained that he chose to bring the issue to the floor because D.C. residents were fighting and dying in Iraq without a voice in Congress.
“This is fairness,” Reid said. “It’s the right thing to do.”
The Senate vote was 57 to 42, with eight Republicans voting to allow the bill to be considered.
Citing constitutional concerns, President Bush has threatened to veto the legislation. The bill passed the House in April by a vote of 241 to 177, short of the two-thirds needed to override a veto.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) opposed the measure. He called it “clearly and unambiguously unconstitutional” and said the remedy for disenfranchisement of the district’s residents is to amend the Constitution to make the District of Columbia a state.
But a proposed constitutional amendment to do just that failed in 1985 because it did not win support from two-thirds of the states. In the years since, proponents have tried to persuade Americans to embrace the idea of congressional representation for D.C. residents. Arguing that the federal government already recognizes the District of Columbia as a state in matters of commerce and taxes, they organized under a new umbrella effort, DC Vote ( www.dcvote.org), and began a grass-roots lobbying campaign.
This latest effort would have added a House seat for largely Democratic D.C. and given majority Republican Utah another House seat, raising the voting membership in the House of Representatives to 437. Proponents attracted a wide array of political support, inspiring a bipartisan lobbying push from former Rep. Jack Kemp, a Republican, and the Democratic mayor of Washington, Adrian M. Fenty. Fenty was allowed on the floor to buttonhole senators.
“Not since segregation has the Senate blocked a voting rights bill, and this is a voting rights bill,” Fenty told a rally on Monday. The District of Columbia has had a nonvoting delegate in the House since 1971.
The unlikely yoking of D.C. and Utah was the brainchild of Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), who described it as an attempt to “take the partisanship out of this.”
With a 57% African American population, D.C. has voted Democratic in every presidential election since 1964. If it were a state, with the congressional representation allotted by the Constitution, its voting habits would likely add one Democrat to the House and two to the Senate. That is one reason some congressional Republicans and GOP-dominated state legislatures have balked at statehood.
Utah, meanwhile, was aggrieved that the 2000 census left it 857 residents shy of getting a fourth member of the House. The state protested that decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, saying the census had not counted thousands of residents serving abroad as Mormon missionaries. Utah, which has not voted for a Democratic president since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964, lost that case.