Norton: D.C. will get Voting Rights Early this Year
||The Currents (DC)
||Wednesday, January 6, 2010
||The Voice of the Hill
D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton is predicting that District residents will get long-awaited voting representation in Congress in early 2010.
"We're going to pass this bill one way or the other," Norton said in an interview on New Year's Eve.
The D.C. Voting Rights Act was mired in the House last spring after the Senate in February accepted a controversial amendment that would have stripped the city of its current gun laws — an amendment Norton terms "the poison pill."
"I'm trying to get what the District wants," she said. "The District wants its gun laws, and the District wants voting rights. We are very close to a way to get this done. We have found another way to get it through, without this deadly impact."
What she's not saying, for obvious reasons, is precisely how. Norton says she has met with Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., and other House leaders to map out a strategy for getting a "clean bill" through. "I have never said what I will do," she said, "but don't doubt me, we will get a bill."
There is inevitably a sense of déjà vu.
Norton and other top District officials greeted the first days of the Obama administration, and the newly elected Democratic majority in the Senate and House, with optimism. In early 2009, several said that "the stars were aligned" to get the voting rights act passed that year.
But they were stymied when the Senate promptly passed the bill, by a 61-37 vote, but accepted the amendment by Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., that would have wiped out the city's relatively strict gun laws. It quickly became clear that there were not enough votes in the House to pass the bill without the so-called "Ensign amendment," which was strongly backed by the National Rifle Association.
Some District activists said voting rights supporters should swallow hard and accept it — get a vote in the House now, and try to get rid of the Ensign amendment later.
But Norton said she had no intention of accepting the Ensign amendment immediately when she was ensured of a Democratic majority in the House and Senate for at least two years.
"What do you do with a poison pill on a bill everybody's for?" she asked. "My theory was, we have 24 months to get this through the House. Why take this trade-off now?"
Meanwhile, Norton has been pushing through less momentous bills that she considers "breakthroughs for D.C. home rule."
In 2009, legislators eliminated riders that have restricted the District's use of local funds for medical marijuana and for abortions for low-income women. The 111th Congress, in its first year of a two-year session, also defeated an attempt to reimpose a ban on needle exchange programs, thought to protect intravenous drug users from contracting HIV/AIDS.
Late in the year, the House held hearings on two significant home rule bills that would allow the District to enact a budget and local laws without submitting them to Congress for review. Norton predicts the budget and legislative autonomy acts will pass both houses in 2010.
But other home rule advocates are pushing a more ambitious, and more controversial, goal: statehood.
At-large D.C. Council member Michael Brown, who chairs a special committee on statehood and self-determination, said he is "very supportive" of the current voting rights bill, which would award one House seat to the Democrat-dominated District and one to Republican-leaning Utah.
"But at the same time, statehood is the ultimate goal," Brown said. "It's not one strategy, but two parallel strategies."
He acknowledged that obtaining statehood is a longer-term effort. "There's a lot of groundwork to do before we push a [statehood] bill in Congress," he said, noting an attempt now to collect ceremonial resolutions from various states supporting the concept.
"But the ultimate goal can't be just one vote. The ultimate goal is statehood," Brown said.
Yesterday the council voted to establish a "51st State Commission" to study the issue and map out ways for the District to achieve statehood.
At a press briefing Monday, D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray noted that the neon "Taxation Without Representation" sign board that adorns the front of the Wilson Building indicates that District residents paid more than $3.6 billion in federal taxes in 2009.
The sign is being adjusted to $0 to mark the start of 2010, but Gray said he hopes it will also announce that the District has voting representation in Congress before the end of the year.