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Is Congress Getting Closer to Granting D.C. Voting Rights?

CBS/AP
CBS/AP

President Abraham Lincoln freed slaves in the District of Columbia 148 years ago today and supporters of Washington, D.C., voting rights see the opportunity to make history again next week. The House of Representatives is expected to consider legislation that would grant Washington residents a voting member of Congress.

The D.C. Voting Rights Act has the backing of President Barack Obama who issued a statement today urging its passage and pointing out that "although DC residents pay federal taxes and serve honorably in our armed services, they do not have a vote in Congress or full autonomy over local issues."

Supporters of the D.C. vote had reason to be optimistic when President Obama took office and Democrats controlled both the House and Senate. The bill's chance of passing looked more likely than it had in decades.

But just one month ago, the possibility of the House taking up the D.C. Voting Rights Act looked like the longest of long shots. Congress was deep in the health care drama leaving little, if any, room for any other controversial legislative issue.

And there was another problem that House members are all too familiar with and complain about often: The Senate.

The Senate took up legislation early in Mr. Obama's presidency that would expand the House of Representatives to 437 members. One member would represent Washington, D.C., and the other would represent Utah -- bringing that state's number of representatives from three to four. This move brought some bipartisan support to the bill since members expected D.C to elect a Democrat and Utah to elect a Republican.

The bill changed dramatically when the Senate added an amendment to its D.C. Voting Rights bill sponsored by Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) that would force the District of Columbia to weaken its gun control laws. It stated that the District of Columbia could not "unduly burden" residents from owning guns. That amendment passed 62 to 36 in February 26, 2009, and the entire bill passed the Senate that same day.

Adding that language stalled efforts in the House to bring the voting bill to the floor. The move outraged the Washington City Council, the mayor and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (the city's non-voting delegate in the House).

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) has been asked repeatedly by local press since that time when the House would take up the measure. He was forced time after time to give the same answer that they were working on a compromise, but no deal was imminent.

Anti-gun Democrats, including Norton herself, now accept that November elections are coming fast and this may be the last chance for some time to pass the bill. "There is nothing left to do but make the hard decision," Norton said in a statement. "I believe residents would not want us to pass up this once-in-a-life-time opportunity for the vote they have sought for more than two centuries."

Even if the House passes the legislation next week, hurdles to D.C. residents getting a voting member of Congress remain. The legislation is not expected to be exactly the same as the Senate bill which means the two chambers will have to work out their differences in a conference committee and then both have to pass the legislation again.

Since the Senate passed the bill last year, House Democrats have lost a key Republican ally in Utah, Sen. Orrin Hatch, over a provision in the House bill that would make the new Utah congressman represent the entire state instead of allowing the Utah state government to draw a new district.

"If this bill passes the House and comes to Senate," Hatch warned, "I will vote to filibuster and vote against this bill, and will urge my Senate colleagues to do so as well." Hatch is particularly concerned about the constitutional issues raised by one House member representing more people in Utah than the three others.

If the House and Senate are able to bridge their differences and pass final legislation that is signed into law by the president, a constitutional challenge is almost certain. Opponents of the legislation have long-pointed to language in the constitution that says representatives shall be chosen by the states. It does not say anything about the representation of districts.

Just another reason that D.C. voting rights has always been a heavy lift.


(CBS)
Jill Jackson is a CBS News Capitol Hill Producer. You can read more of her posts in Hotsheet here. You can also follow her on Twitter.
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    Jill Jackson is a CBS News senior political producer.