Firearm Provision Blows Up D.C. Voting Rights Bill

For the second time in as many weeks, the House has had to postpone action on a major bill important to Democratic leaders.

The House Democratic leadership Tuesday decided to delay a plan to grant a seat in the House to the District of Columbia. Since it is not a state, Washington, D.C., does not get a vote in Congress.

The Senate approved a similar bill to give the District voting representation. And approval in the House seemed all but assured. But an amendment attached to the Senate version of the legislation by Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., created problems in the House.

Ensign's amendment would give Washington residents better access to firearms. The Supreme Court last year ruled that the District's 32-year-old ban on firearms was unconstitutional.

Washington, D.C. delegate Eleanor Holmes-Norton ripped pro-gun Democrats following the news.

"There is no choice between a vote for American citizens and a completely unrelated and reckless gun bill. That is a non-choice," Norton said during an emotional impromptu press conference following the Democratic caucus meeting Tuesday afternoon. "That's not a fair exchange. That's not even an unfair exchange. That is an absurd exchange that no one would accept."

Passing the District of Columbia legislation was supposed to be easy in the House compared to the Senate. But the National Rifle Association signaled it could make a procedural vote on the issue a test case for lawmakers' Second Amendment voting records.

Nearly every piece of legislation that comes to the House floor must receive what's called a "rule." The rule establishes the guidelines for how lawmakers will handle the measure on the floor. Everything from time allotments to amendments are contained in the rule

However, the Democratic leadership faced a potential revolt from moderate and conservative Democrats on the vote to approve the rule if the leadership failed to include Ensign's firearms provision.

The House cannot debate a bill if the procedural vote on the rule fails.

So this conundrum forced the Democrats to punt on representation for the District of Columbia for now.

Norton asked House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) to temporarily pull the bill until they can come up with a strategy to move forward.

"The gravest insult is to pit the safety and security of everybody in the District -- from the president down to the kids who can now get hold of military weapons plus District residents -- put all that at risk by putting this reckless bill forward," she said.

This episode mirrors a scenario two years ago when Republicans forced Democrats to yank a similar bill for Washington, D.C. off the floor when they attempted to make pro-Second Amendment lawmakers to either vote for the legislation or against gun rights.

Last week House Democrats had to postpone a vote on a bill designed to ease the nation's housing crisis. Democrats intended to approve a plan that would grant bankruptcy judges the right to lower mortgage rates and interest payments for struggling homeowners. Concerns about whether there were enough Democrats to support the plan made the leadership delay a vote on that plan until later this week.

For her part, Norton let loose on her fellow Democrats, threatening that they should consider the potential loss of black voters in 2010 if they support the gun amendment.

"If members are here by virtue of some support of the NRA, I have news for them. Many of the Democratic members are because there is a solid group of Democrats who vote for them. The most solid group are African-Americans," she said. "It will not help any Democrat to go home this time and say he killed a civil rights bill with a gun bill."

Norton said she is patient but wants a resolution soon.

"I certainly think the delay should not be very long," she said. "We certainly don't want this to stretch out so it fades away."