Will D.C. Finally Get a Vote?

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Mandel Ngan / AFP / Getty

A D.C. voting rights supporter blows on her horn during a rally April 16, 2007, at the Capitol reflecting pool in Washington, D.C.

It was an awkward moment during an otherwise pleasant, diplomatic get-together in the nation's capital. Over the July 4 holiday two years ago, Senator George Voinovich was wending his way down the Potomac River, toward George Washington's Mount Vernon estate, accompanied by a delegation of European security experts, in town for a conference. A motorboat draped in banners that read "Equal Voting Rights for D.C." drifted up alongside the boat. Voinovich, an Ohio Republican, found himself at a loss for words. "It was very difficult to explain to my European friends why the people who lived in the District of Columbia — the heart of our government — had no representation," Voinovich recalled at a Senate committee meeting last month. "The explanation I gave wasn't very well received."

The Senator was referring to the fact that the approximately 580,000 residents of Washington, D.C., despite paying federal taxes, have no voting power in either house of the United States Congress. Instead, they have Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, who serves in the House of Representatives and can participate in debate but is prohibited from casting any official vote. Norton has been on the job for 17 years, many of which she has devoted to trying to secure more rights for D.C. residents. Since 2001, she and Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman, an independent, have been introducing legislation to provide Washingtonians with voting representation in Congress. And for the first time, they might actually have a chance of getting this legislation passed.

A compromise Senate bill emerged out of committee last month that would add two seats to the House of Representatives. One would go to the overwhelmingly Democratic Washington, D.C., while the other would be given to heavily Republican Utah, whose population count during the last census fell just short of netting the state an extra representative. A similar bill passed the House in April and supporters are optimistic that the Senate version has a similarly good shot of passage in the next few months. Standing in their way are President Bush and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, both of whom consider the measure to be unconstitutional. The President's aides have advised him to veto the bill. McConnell said, in a March speech, "In order to get a congressman, you have to be a state ... This is not murky. It is abundantly clear."

Such opposition riles Ilir Zherka, executive director of D.C. Vote, a group that advocates for D.C. suffrage. With a majority of Democratic Senators supporting their position, Zherka and D.C. Vote have spent the past few weeks lobbying Republicans to reach the 60-vote threshold needed to prevent a filibuster. "We think that would be unconscionable in this case," says Zherka, evoking the more contentious civil rights debates of the 1960s. "There hasn't been a filibuster attempt on a voting-rights act since the segregation era." Of course, the bill first needs to come up for debate. Sen. Harry Reid, the Democratic majority leader from Nevada, has promised to schedule time for the bill if passage looks likely. But getting it to the floor this month — the professed goal of its supporters — will be difficult with weeks of contentious wrangling over the Iraq war and a defense authorization bill expected.

D.C. residents have long taken umbrage at their lack of political power. Until 1975, when it elected its first 20th-century mayor, the city was effectively governed by Congress, which to this day still has to approve the city's budget. Three years later, a constitutional amendment that would have made D.C. a state passed Congress, only to fail ratification in 1985 after receiving support from only 16 other states. In 2000, the city instituted a new slogan on its license plates: "Taxation Without Representation." (President Bush eventually traded in his limo tags for ones without the slogan.)

Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University, has testified before Congress four times on the constitutionality of allowing congressional representation for the District. And while he maintains that it is "patently offensive to have [D.C. ] residents continue in their current status," there is also no getting around the fact that the bill currently before Congress is unconstitutional. "In fact, I think this is the most premeditated unconstitutional act of Congress in decades," says Turley. "The Constitution expressly limits voting members in the House to representatives of actual states." That's certainly true, but others point to the "District Clause" — which gives Congress express jurisdiction over D.C.— as proof that the legislative branch has the power to extend voting rights to the city. The final decision may well rest with the Supreme Court, which could provide a more definitive answer to the long-running debate.

Zherka hopes to flip several more G.O.P. Senators in the next couple of weeks, specifically mentioning Olympia Snowe of Maine, Gordon Smith of Oregon and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. "We're realists," he said during a July 4 parade in Washington. "We know that we need the support of Republicans." Whether or not he gets the political backing he needs now, at least he can count on future generations of public support. Behind him, a mother pushed her infant in a stroller. Perched on the front was a sign written in a child's scrawl: "My mommy just paid her federal taxes — but she still has no vote. That is not fair!"