WASHINGTON – Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch said Tuesday he's supporting legislation to create new House seats for his home state of Utah and the District of Columbia, boosting chances that after two centuries residents of the nation's capital will get a vote in Congress.
Hatch joined Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., in sponsoring the Senate version of a bill, passed by the House last month, that would permanently add two seats to the 435-seat House, giving one to the Democratic district and another, provisionally, to Republican-leaning Utah.
Most House Republicans joined the Bush White House in opposing the bill, saying the Constitution denies voting rights to a non-state entity such as the district. The support of Utah's two Republican senators was deemed crucial to success in the Senate.
"I am certain that this cosponsorship will lead to the breakthrough that we've been searching for to bring an end of 200 years of disenfranchisement," Lieberman said. Hatch said his fellow Utah senator, Robert Bennett, would also co-sponsor the bill.
Hatch had voiced constitutional concerns about the House bill because it gives Utah, which now has three House districts, a fourth at-large seat. Democrats saw that approach as a way of protecting the lone Democratic seat in Utah, but Hatch said it would give Utahans two votes for the House.
The Senate bill would allow the Utah state legislature to create a fourth district before the congressional elections next year. The legislature adopted a redistricting plan last December.
Fast-growing Utah narrowly missed out on getting a new seat after the 2000 census, partly because many young residents, out of the state on Mormon missionary activities, were not counted. "We thought we were pretty badly treated," Hatch said.
Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., who sponsored the House bill with D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, came up with the idea of pairing Republican Utah with Democratic Washington.
Hatch said he was mindful of the argument that the Constitution only allows states to have voting members of Congress. The White House issued a statement saying senior advisers would recommend that President Bush veto it if it clears Congress.
But Hatch said Davis and Norton had made persuasive arguments that Congress treats the district as a state in applying laws and the paying of federal taxes. "These arguments lead me to believe it is only fair that we proceed with this legislation and, if it becomes necessary, let the courts decide."
Lieberman, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said the panel would hold hearings on the bill this month. He said Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., supported it.