updated 2/24/2009 12:32:12 PM ET 2009-02-24T17:32:12

The District of Columbia's two-century-long wait for a voice in Congress was a step closer to ending Tuesday with a crucial Senate vote to take up legislation giving the capital city's 600,000 residents a full seat in the House of Representatives.

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The Senate voted 62-34, two more than needed, to begin debate on the measure that would increase the House to 437 members. It would give the Democratic-dominated city a new vote while adding a fourth seat to Republican-leaning Western state of Utah.

Key to the vote was that Democrats, who overwhelmingly support the bill, have seven more Senate seats than two years ago when the chamber fell three votes short of the 60 required to end a Republican-led delaying debate.

The bill still faces contentious amendments and may have to overcome Republican opposition to moving to a final vote. If it does pass the Senate, possibly by the end of the week, the bill goes on to a receptive House and ultimately to President Barack Obama, who supports it.

Residents of Washington, which Americans consider synonymous with District of Columbia, have chafed over their second-class status; for nearly a decade many have displayed "taxation without representation" license plates on their cars to signal their umbrage.

If enacted into law, the measure is likely to face court challenges from opponents who contend that giving a House seat to the city is unconstitutional because it is not a state. The Supreme Court could be the final arbiter.

On the other side, supporters cite language in the U.S. Constitution that gives legislative authority over the District 'in all cases whatsoever."

"I find it unimaginable that 600,000 Americans have no voice and no vote in the United States Congress," the Senate's No. 2 Democrat, Dick Durbin, said in urging support for the measure.

Past votes denying residents of the federal capital a vote in the House "left the citizens of the District with the wholly unsought-after distinction of being the only residents of a democratically ruled national capital in the world who have no say in how their nation is governed. It's really astounding," said Sen. Joe Lieberman, an independent and sponsor of the measure with Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican.

"We're closer than we've ever been," Ilir Zherka, executive director of the advocacy group DC Vote, said ahead of a preliminary vote.

More than 3,000 people from across the nation called their senators Monday asking them to support the measure, according to DC Vote.

Washington has been without a vote in Congress since 1801, when Congress took control of the newly created capital on the Potomac River but did not provide residents with voting rights.

Voting rights advocates believe the measure will win enough Senate support for a final vote later this week that requires only a simple majority for passage. The House Judiciary Committee votes on the legislation Wednesday, and the full House could take it up in early March.

With the president's signature, D.C. residents would elect a representative with full voting rights for January 2011, barring court interdiction.

The District has been represented since 1991 by Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton. Norton, like five other delegates from island territories, can vote in committees and on some amendments on the House floor but not on final passage of legislation.

The 23rd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1961, gave residents the right to vote in presidential elections, and the 1973 Home Rule Act provided for the direct election of the mayor and other city officials.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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