WASHINGTON – Democrats on Wednesday pushed through a rules change giving limited voting rights on the House floor to the chamber's five nonstate delegates. Republicans described the move as an unconstitutional power grab.
With the 226-191 vote, delegates representing the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam, the Virgin Islands and American Samoa can cast ballots on amendments. The lawmakers, however, will not be allowed to vote on final passage of legislation. If the delegates' votes decide the outcome of an amendment, the House immediately will vote again without the delegates' participation.
"This is symbolic. The delegates know it," said Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md. "But it is an opportunity for them to participate."
"It's simply the right thing to do," said Virgin Islands Del. Donna Christensen, a Democrat. "We can make this small step toward inclusion of all Americans."
Democrats imposed the rule the last time they were in power, in the 1993-95 session. The qualification that delegates could not determine the outcome of a vote was added to avoid conflict with the Constitution, which says that the House should be made up of representatives chosen by the "several states."
Republicans in 1993 sued to overturn the rule. A U.S. District Court judge, in a decision upheld on appeal, said the rule was lawful because it did not enhance delegate rights to vote on legislation.
Republicans indicated they were ready to pursue it to the Supreme Court this time. "We're going to embark on another legal struggle just as we did 14 years ago," said Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif., the top Republican on the House Rules Committee.
Republicans also charged that giving votes to delegates, who traditionally are Democrats, was a means to pad victory margins on votes. Of the five delegates, only Puerto Rico's Resident Commissioner Luis Fortuno is a Republican.
GOP lawmakers noted that among the five areas, only residents in the District of Columbia pay federal income tax, and that the populations of American Samoa, Guam and the Virgin Islands are far below the average congressional district of more than 600,000. Puerto Rico has 4 million residents; American Samoa has fewer than 60,000.
"Representation without taxation," said Republican Whip Roy Blunt, R-Mo.
"An outrageous grab of power by the majority, a breach of the trust of the members here," was how Republican leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, described it.
Democrats countered that residents of all the territories are serving in the military and that American Samoa has a per capita fatality rate in Iraq that is higher than for any state. "Nine of my soldiers have died fighting for my country's interests in that terrible conflict," said Samoa's Eni F.H. Faleomavaega.
Puerto Rico has had representation in the House since the beginning of the 20th century; the other four received delegate status in the 1970s. The delegates have full voting rights in committees and can rise through the committee ranks like other members.
The five delegates jointly signed a letter urging the House to give them the partial vote, although two said in speeches Wednesday that this was not their priority
"What the House really needs to do," said Fortuno, "is to authorize a process of self-determination for Puerto Rico."
Norton said that in 1993 the partial vote was a breakthrough for the nation's capital, but her focus now is on passing legislation that would give D.C. residents full voting rights. "I ask my colleagues on the other side not to allow this needless debate to poison the atmosphere" for progress on her legislation.
For the past several years, Norton and Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., have promoted a bill that would create additional seats for Washington, D.C., a Democratic stronghold, and for GOP-leaning Utah, which narrowly missed getting a new seat after the last census.