D.C. Voting Rights Bill Clears Major Hurdle

The Senate will vote on a bill that would give Washington a voting representative in the House.

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For voters in the District of Columbia, the time seems to have come. In a historic vote today, the Senate passed a measure that calls for a full vote on a bill that would give voting rights in the House of Representatives to the nearly 600,000 residents of Washington, D.C.

Since the nation's founding, voters in the District of Columbia, which has a population larger than the state of Wyoming, have been denied a vote in Congress. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District's lone congressional representative, is allowed to participate in debate and craft legislation, but she is prohibited from casting a vote on the House floor.

Eight Republicans and 54 Democrats supported the measure to bring legislation that would change this state of affairs to a vote. The procedural motion was opposed by two Democrats—Robert Byrd of West Virginia and Max Baucus of Montana—and most of the Senate's Republicans.

Experts say the bill, which also will give an additional seat in the House to Utah, could be considered as early as tomorrow. Some Republicans had opposed the measure because they argued that giving Democratic-leaning D.C. a vote in the House would give the Democrats more of an advantage. To attract some GOP votes, the bill's sponsors added a representative to the conservative state of Utah.

"Congress truly made history today," says Ilir Zherka, executive director of DC Votes, an advocacy group that has been pushing for the bill's passage for more than a decade. "Not since the 1970s has a piece of D.C. voting-rights legislation made it to the floor of the Senate. After years of protests, marches, and calls to Congress, District residents are finally on their way to having their voices heard."

The House passed a similarly worded bill in 2007, but with the threat of a veto from President Bush, the measure did not win the 60 votes it needed to move to a vote in the Senate. The issue then, as it has been for decades, was the legislation's constitutionality: While many legal scholars believe Congress has the power to give the District voting representation, others point out that the Constitution explicitly limits congressional representation to states. Sen. Jon Kyl, an Arizona Republican, made the point again today on the Senate floor, saying the bill's legal standing is "weak and will not survive in court."

With Barack Obama, who cosponsored the '07 legislation, in the White House, many political analysts believe that is where this legislation may be headed. "Victory is so close on this issue, but the fight's not over yet," says Zherka. The Senate will debate the bill tomorrow. The House is likely to consider it in the coming weeks.

Corrected on 02/25/09: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified one of the Democratic senators who voted against invoking cloture on the D.C. voting rights legislation. They were Robert Byrd of West Virginia and Max Baucus of Montana.