Senate passes D.C. voting bill

A key vote in the U.S. Senate last Thursday challenged the District’s unofficial motto, “Taxation Without Representation,” and inched the city closer to having a voting representative in Congress.

The bill, which was co-sponsored by Sens. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., and Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, passed by a 61-37 margin. The same bill was introduced into the House of Representatives by Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C. – the District’s nonvoting representative – and a House vote on the legislation is expected next week.

“Today is only the first day of the city’s voting rights celebration,” Norton said in a news release after the passage. “We celebrate this bill by making this prediction: The bill will pass the House as soon as next week, it will go to conference for adjustments, and it will become law. Let the celebration begin.”

Passing the Senate marked a major hurdle for the bill. When similar legislation was debated in both houses of Congress in 2007, the bill passed the House but died in the Senate. The success of the most recent bill has been largely attributed to the election of new members of Congress who are more supportive of giving the District a vote.

Jaline Quinto, communications director for D.C. Vote – an advocacy group dedicated to securing voting representation for the District – said her organization is much more confident now than it was two years ago.

“We were very optimistic that we would see this pass in 2009,” Quinto said. “A number of senators who opposed the D.C. Voting Act in 2007 were unseated.”

But the bill still faces significant controversy, stemming from questions of the constitutionality of having a voting representative from the District. Opponents of the bill cite Article One, Section Two of the Constitution which states that the House of Representatives be chosen by “people of the several states.” Since D.C. is not a state, it therefore cannot have a voting representative in Congress. Should the bill pass and be signed by President Obama, it will almost certainly face a legal challenge that could reach the Supreme Court.

The controversy surrounding the bill’s passage was not limited to constitutional discussion, however.

Republican Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., attached an amendment to the bill that would undo most of the District’s gun control laws. D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty and D.C. City Council chairman Vincent Gray have both come out in opposition of the amendment – and while the Senate’s version of the bill has the gun regulation changes tacked on, they could get removed after differences are settled between the Senate’s measure and the bill that will likely come out of the House.

Despite the gun amendment, Fenty was enthusiastic following the bill’s passage.

“Today’s Senate vote is a historic breakthrough in the District of Columbia’s 200-year-old fight for full voting rights,” Fenty said in a news release on Thursday. “Since the bill is not final, my administration will continue to work with both the Senate and House leadership to ensure the bill reflects the priorities of District residents and is passed in final form as swiftly as humanly possible.”

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