Effort to give D.C. a vote in Congress moves to Senate

WASHINGTON—What do Utah Republicans, the Iraq war and Barack Obama's presidential candidacy have in common?

All could play into a strategy to persuade lawmakers from other parts of the country to give residents of the nation's capital—a majority-black, Democratic enclave of about 582,000—a voting member in Congress. After decades of failed attempts, advocates of voting rights for the District of Columbia say this year may offer their best chance.

The House of Representatives passed D.C. voting rights legislation last month. The tougher sell, in the Senate, begins with a hearing Tuesday in the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.

The strategy goes like this:

_Give D.C. one voting member in the House but create a second seat and give that one to majority-Republican Utah, at least until new congressional districts are drawn after the 2010 census. Utah fell just shy of getting a fourth congressional seat after the last census.

_Use the Iraq war and issues relating to race to pressure those who say that the Constitution only grants states the right to have voting members of Congress.

With many D.C. residents serving in Iraq, advocates say Americans fighting for democratic principles abroad should have full access to the democratic process at home. The district has never had a vote in Congress.

And the early strength of Obama, the biracial junior senator from Illinois, in the Democratic primary has captured the hopes of many black voters and makes certain that race in America is a theme that will frame some of the election debate.

"This issue is a national civil rights issue on par with the Voting Rights Act of 1965," said Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C.'s nonvoting delegate, in an interview.

"Black people may know nothing else about D.C. but these two things: There are a lot of black people here, and they don't have the vote in Congress. And that links directly in the minds of African-Americans and, I believe many others, to the denial of a vote to African-Americans historically."

Jack Kemp, the Republican former presidential aspirant, lawmaker and Housing and Urban Development secretary, also is a spokesman for D.C. voting rights.

He says Republicans should support the change if they want black Americans to identify the Republican Party as the party of Abraham Lincoln. "You seldom get a chance to recapture that which your political party was predicated on," Kemp said. "The Constitution didn't let women vote till the 20th century, and blacks were considered property. Don't talk to me about the purity of the Constitution."

The bipartisan coalition of lawmakers leading the effort reflects the elements of the legislative strategy.

The coalition includes Joseph Lieberman, an independent Democrat from Connecticut, backer of the Iraq war and the chairman of the panel considering the issue Tuesday, as well as both of Utah's Republican senators, Orrin Hatch and Robert Bennett.

Louisiana Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu is another co-sponsor. So are Obama and Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York.

In the House, two of Norton's chief allies are Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., and Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., who shaped the Utah compromise.

But several lawmakers remain unconvinced, especially within Republican ranks.

Opponents include Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., general chairman of the Republican Party.

Martinez said D.C. has no more claim to a voting member in Congress than do the U.S. territories, which also have non-voting delegates.

"It's a constitutional issue. It really should not have a race issue injected into it," Martinez said. "The rules of the game have been out there for over 200 years now. People are free to live where they want to live."

The district's status has often been revisited but rarely adjusted since Maryland and Virginia turned over the land and Congress voted in 1790 to create a federal city outside of any state. In the Civil War era, the city became a magnet for freed slaves, and in the century and a half that followed, it grew to surpass the population of Wyoming.

But D.C. couldn't vote in presidential elections until 1964. Congress later empowered D.C. residents to elect a mayor and city council and a non-voting delegate to the House.

Still, Congress oversees much of the city's governance and appropriations. Norton can develop legislation and participate in committee hearings but not vote on final passage of bills.


(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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