Washington Mayor Protests Plan to Strip Vote in Congress

Washington Mayor Vincent Gray and city residents protested on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, saying they were outraged by a Republican plan to take away power from the District's sole representative in Congress.

Washington's delegate to Congress, Eleanor Holmes Norton, has never been a full voting member of the U.S. House. But during the last four years of Democratic control, Norton has been allowed to vote in the House Committee of the Whole. That gave her the ability to vote on proposed changes to legislation, though not on its passage. New rules that will be considered Wednesday when the U.S. House convenes under Republican leadership would strip the Democrat of her vote.

Gray, who took office as mayor just two days ago, called the proposed change "the most outrageous insult imaginable."

The mood was very different from last year when Congress appeared close to making Norton a full voting member. The deal eventually collapsed largely because of opposition to an amendment that would have weakened the city's strong gun control laws.

The mayor said two years ago when Democrats took control of the White House and held on to control of both houses of Congress he believed "the stars were aligned" for the city to get full voting rights in the House.

"Here we are just two short years later fighting to preserve what little we have," Gray told a group of residents that assembled in the Rayburn House Office Building, which houses the offices of House members. "We have the smallest sliver of democracy absolutely imaginable."

Gray, formerly the head of the D.C. Council, urged the city's some 600,000 residents to demonstrate that they are "truly outraged" and to make their complaints heard on the Hill. On Tuesday, a group organized by D.C. Vote, a nonpartisan group that lobbies for more independence for the District and a vote in Congress, planned to hand deliver a letter to all 435 House members, urging them to allow Norton to keep her Committee of the Whole vote. But the prospects were not promising.

The new House Speaker, Republican John Boehner of Ohio, has not responded to a letter from Norton asking to retain her vote, though two members of his staff met with D.C. Vote on Tuesday for about a half hour. Boehner's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

A vote wasn't the only change city officials hoped for when Democrats claimed control of the White House in 2008 and retained control of Congress, the first time since 1993 that Democrats had control of both the presidency and Congress. The city currently has to have its budget and laws reviewed by Congress before going into effect, and the hope was that Democrats could change that so the city could function independently.

But when Congress went home at the end of December, closing the book on Democratic control of the House for at least the next two years, some of the city's biggest priorities remained on the table.

Conventional wisdom is that many of the issues of the District, where three-quarters of registered voters are Democrats, will be on hold while Republicans are in charge of the House and hold more seats in the Senate.

D.C. Vote executive director Ilir Zherka said that over the next two years the city will have to be on the defensive. Zherka, Gray and Norton agree Republicans will almost certainly try to reinstate conditions on the city's budget. That includes a restriction banning Washington from using tax money to help poor women pay for abortions and another restriction that banned the city from legalizing medical marijuana, which it did in 2010. Getting those so-called budget riders removed had been one of the victories for Norton in the last two years. A rider preventing the city from using money for needle-exchange programs which was removed in 2007 could also come back.

Norton, who has been a member of Congress since 1991, said she knows Republicans will not allow the House to consider a vote for the District while they have control, and that it will be 2012 before pushing a voting rights bill is again a real possibility. But she said it is her job to "keep what we've won in tact" and that progress is not impossible.

Republican control has not stopped her from making gains for the city before, she said, though she acknowledged possible problems ahead.

"It's certainly not the best way to start, to take the vote of the residents of the District of Columbia," she said.