A bill that would have given District of Columbia residents their first-ever member of Congress died in the Senate on Tuesday, dashing hopes of full voting rights in the nation’s capital after a 206-year wait.
Senators voted 57-42, just three votes short of the 60 needed to move the measure forward. The bill would have created two new House seats: One for the city of about 600,000 people and one for Utah, which narrowly missed out on a fourth seat after the last census.
The procedural vote, against moving on with the debate, effectively killed the best chance in decades to win the district a full-fledged House member. The city has been denied voting rights in Congress since 1801, making it the only major capital city in the world where citizens are denied a vote in the nation’s representative body of government.
Advocates had hoped to resolve what they call a “national disgrace” and the most important civil rights issue of the era. They said they will try again, likely with a new version of the bill next year.
“We’re not going to take this lying down,” vowed Eleanor Holmes Norton, the district’s delegate, who is allowed to vote only in House committees.
Republicans vowed to block bill
While the House easily passed the bill in April, Senate Republican leaders vowed to block it, saying it is unconstitutional. The White House also threatened a veto.
“If the residents of the district are to get a member for themselves, they have a remedy: amend the Constitution,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
Tuesday’s outcome hinged on just a few votes, with both sides lobbying hard. Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., was absent. Montana Sen. Max Baucus was the sole Democrat to vote against the measure. Baucus said he didn’t want to dilute Montana’s influence in Congress by expanding the House. Montana has just one House member.
Eight Republicans, including Utah’s senators, voted for the bill, although advocates for the measure had been hoping more would vote their way.
“This vote today is a victory in a way,” said Ilir Zherka, executive director of the advocacy group DC Vote. “It’s been over 30 years since a majority of senators supported D.C. voting rights.”
District lost rights in 1801
Congress took away the district’s voting rights in 1801, a year after they moved the capital to Washington from Philadelphia.
District residents have had the right to vote in presidential elections since the 23rd Amendment was ratified in 1961. They won the right to elect their own mayor and other officials in the 1973 Home Rule Act.
While Congress approved a constitutional amendment in 1978 giving the district a vote in the House, only 16 states ratified it — far short of the three-fourths required to change the Constitution.
In 1993, the House rejected another proposal to put the district on the road to statehood, and the issue has been dormant since.
Utah added for GOP
Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., and Norton, a Democrat, drew up the current plan, adding Utah in hopes of making the bill more palatable to Republicans.
Utah missed getting a fourth House seat by 857 people after the 2000 census. State officials have argued that they were entitled to that new seat because the government failed to count some 11,000 Mormon missionaries living abroad.
Utah residents would almost certainly elect a Republican, balancing out the district, where Democrats dominate.
The House has consisted of 435 seats since 1960.
Senate Republicans maintain that that the Constitution’s Article One, Section 2 clearly denies the District a voting member of the House because it limits representation to “the people of the several states.”
Envisioned as separate entity?
McConnell and others argue that the nation’s founders envisioned the federal city as a separate entity from the states. The capital’s independence would prevent it from getting special treatment and allow the other states to remain equal.
Supporters of the bill, who include Utah’s Republican senators Orrin Hatch and Bob Bennett, argue that if Congress can tax District residents and require them to serve in the military, it has the authority to give them a full-fledged member of the House.
But even Bennett agreed to support the bill only if it were amended to prevent the courts from giving the District representation in the Senate.