Legislation to give the District of Columbia voting representation in the House stalled short of passage Thursday when Republicans unexpectedly injected the volatile issue of gun control into the debate.
Apparently fearful they might lose control of the proceedings, Democrats decided to postpone action on the voting rights measure, which had appeared to be moving methodically toward passage.
Republicans protested futilely, seeking a quick vote on their attempt to repeal the capital city's ban on handguns.
The developments marked an abrupt turn on legislation that would give District of Columbia residents voting rights in the House for the first time in more than two centuries. President Bush has threatened to veto the bill, saying the Constitution allows congressional voting representation only to states.
But Democrats, backed by civil rights groups, viewed the issue differently.
"It is an historic day, it is a day when the people of the District of Columbia will finally have their voices heard," Speaker Nancy Pelosi said moments before the postponement.
"Washington, D.C., is the only capital in a democracy in the entire world that does not have a voting representative in its parliament," added House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland.
But Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, said that since the city "is not a state, it cannot have a voting member in the House."
A temporary house seat for Utah
In addition to granting the nation's capital voting rights in the House, the legislation would create one additional new seat, temporarily awarded to Utah pending the next reapportionment in 2010.
The legislation would not change the makeup of the Senate, where the District of Columbia has no representation.
Debate on the measure appeared to be winding down when Republicans exercised their prerogative to outline a proposal to block city officials from any attempt to ban firearms permissible under federal law. The ban is already under attack in the courts, and a U.S. Appeals Court recently struck down the city law.
Gun control has been a politically volatile issue in recent years. Democrats have generally tried to avoid votes on the subject, since it exposes fissures in their ranks. Urban and suburban lawmakers generally favor restrictions on many firearms, and rural-district representatives generally oppose them.
The voting rights bill was a compromise between GOP Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, who is the capital city's nonvoting representative. The District of Columbia is overwhelmingly Democratic, while Utah is a heavily Republican state, meaning the balance of power in the House would not shift if the measure became law.
The House debate centered on a duel of citings from the Constitution. Opponents quoted from Article 1, Section 2 that the House should be comprised of members chosen by "the people of several states" in arguing that that disqualified the District because it is not a state.
Supporters turned to Article 1, Section 8, which empowers Congress to "exercise exclusive legislation" over the federal capital. They said that means Congress can, if it chooses, give the District voting rights.
Davis, who represents the Virginia suburbs outside Washington, said the House, which represents the people of the states, is essentially different from the Senate, where states are represented. "This is a right that goes to the people of the District of Columbia and Congress has the right to determine whether they have it or not," he said.
The White House, in a statement issued earlier this week, said President Bush would be advised to veto the legislation if it reaches his desk, stressing that it would take a constitutional amendment to give District residents voting rights.
Norton said she talked to a White House official and asked why Bush "would take it on himself to prejudge the constitutionality of the bill and be perceived here and around the world as personally denying a basic right to D.C. residents who are fighting on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan and others who are paying federal taxes."
Congress did approve a constitutional amendment in 1978 giving the District a vote in the House, but it died after failing to get ratification by three-fourths of the states. In 1993 the House rejected a proposal to put the District on the road to statehood. D.C. residents have had the right to vote in presidential elections since the 23rd Amendment was ratified in 1961.
Norton has full voting rights at the committee level and, like delegates from territories such as Guam and American Samoa, can vote on amendments on the House floor as long at the votes do not change the outcome.