WASHINGTON — In a stunning reversal, Democratic leaders in the House of Representatives on Tuesday shelved a bill that would have given the District of Columbia full voting rights in Congress, because they were unable to block a provision that would have weakened the city's strong gun-control laws.
"The price was way too high," explained House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., in announcing the decision.
Democratic leaders said they were abandoning the bill for the rest of this congressional session. Some Washington voting-rights supporters fear that, with the expected loss of Democratic seats in Congress in November's elections, a vote this week was the bill's last best chance.
Washington has a population of 600,000, 55 percent of it African-American. Washington residents long have complained of unequal treatment by Congress, which has veto power over their affairs even though a mayor and a city council govern the city.
Many Washington license plates carry the motto "Taxation Without Representation." The bill's passage would have changed that. As a political balancing act, it also would have given a fourth House seat to heavily Republican Utah.
Lawmakers were poised to begin a historic debate and vote perhaps as early as Thursday on whether Washington's delegate to the House would become a full voting member. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the city's current delegate, can vote in committees but not on the floor.
After spending more than a year trying to remove language that would weaken Washington's strict anti-gun laws, Norton called last week for sending the bill to the floor for a vote with the language unchanged. She said it needed to be done before more Republicans _ who largely oppose giving Washington a voting member _ were elected to Congress in November.
Democrats currently hold 254 House seats to 177 for Republicans, with four vacancies. Democrats control 59 of the 100 Senate seats, including two independents who usually vote with them.
The Senate passed a version of the bill in February by 61-37 that would have weakened Washington's gun-control law.
Norton and House Democratic leaders decided not to proceed after they read an updated draft of gun language supported by the National Rifle Association that would roll back Washington's tough curbs on gun ownership even more than the Senate bill would. The new language was to be offered as an amendment from the House floor.
"The existing Senate gun bill eliminated important gun-safety laws in the district, but changes in the House gun bill would directly proliferate guns throughout the district," Norton said in a statement.
Several members of Washington's 13-member city council had questioned the wisdom of the House proceeding with the bill with the gun amendment attached. The League of Women Voters, which supports voting rights for Washington, also said that a vote on the bill was "unacceptable."
"Our congressional advocates must continue to fight to pass the D.C. House Voting Rights Act and oppose all amendments," league President Mary Wilson said Monday night. "The voting rights of American citizens deserve a clean bill in the U.S. Congress."
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, had threatened to filibuster the House version because he objected to its requirement that the additional Utah seat be filled on an at-large basis rather than having state officials redraw congressional boundaries to create a new district.
Hatch applauded the decision not to proceed with the bill.
"This legislation made a mockery of our system of federalism by dictating to the state of Utah how it chooses its elected representatives," he said in a statement. "This type of arrogant, Washington-knows-best attitude is exactly why people are so angry, and why I'm glad this legislation will not move forward through the House."
Hoyer, whose congressional district includes some Washington suburbs, said he was "profoundly disappointed," adding that the bill "should not be about the state of Utah or any other state. This legislation should be solely a central piece of American democracy."
The bill, he said, "should be unfettered by other provisions. … The Congress of the United States has not dealt with this in a responsible way."
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