WASHINGTON – Two centuries after lawmakers arrived in the federal city and nearly a hundred years after the last expansion of Congress, a bipartisan group of House members says it's time to give residents of the nation's capital a vote there.
The legislation crafted by Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., and the District of Columbia's nonvoting delegate, Democrat Eleanor Holmes, balances the proposed addition of what would be a solidly Democratic D.C. seat with a new seat for Utah, a state that voted 71 percent for President Bush in 2004.
"It is simply inexcusable that residents of the District of Columbia, the capital of the free world ... do not have a representative with a vote on the floor of the House of Representatives, the People's House," Davis said at a news conference Thursday.
Davis said his House Government Reform Committee would vote on the measure soon, and that Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., would take up the issue. Davis and Norton have been promoting the D.C. vote issue for years, but this would be the first committee vote.
House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Thursday he knew the issue was important to both Washington and Utah. "I'm in a wait-and-see mode. Let's see what the committees can do and we'll talk about it," he said.
Ilir Zherka, executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group D.C. Vote, said the Davis-Norton bill was "the closest we have ever been to voting representation in Congress, and D.C. residents should be shouting from the rooftops and engaging friends across the country to make this critical bill a law."
The House has had 435 representatives since 1913, except for a brief period between 1959 and 1963 when the number was 437 after Hawaii and Alaska became states. A 1929 law made the 435 figure permanent.
Congress in 1801, shortly after moving to Washington, took away the voting rights of D.C. residents, who until then had voted for Virginia or Maryland lawmakers. The 23rd Amendment, ratified in 1961, gave D.C. residents the right to vote in presidential elections, and the city of 537,000 has been allowed to elect its own leaders since 1973.
Norton, who can cast votes in committees and participate in House floor debate but can't vote on the floor, said her ultimate goal is to achieve voting rights in both the House and the Senate, but acknowledges she doesn't have enough support for that now.
"My 16 years in Congress has been defined by the search for some way to get full representation for the city where my family has lived since before the Civil War," she said.
Utah, which just missed getting an extra House seat after the 2000 census, currently has three House seats held by two Republicans and one Democrat. To avoid an immediate shift in this balance, the fourth seat under the Davis-Norton bill would be at-large, representing the entire state, until the 2012 election. Davis' office said this was a common procedure in the 19th century, when the House expanded as the nation's population grew.
Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, said he would support the bill. "I will do what I can to make sure this legislation sees quick action so that Utah can get the at-large seat that we deserve."
"I have been to Iraq 12 times and have met members of our armed services from D.C. risking their lives for our country," said Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn. "They deserve a representative in Congress that has a vote. Ultimately, the politics of this issue will sort themselves out."