Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District of Columbia's nonvoting delegate, and D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty are optimistic that the district's 600,000 residents soon may get a voting representative.
Jacquelyn Martin / AP Enlarge
WASHINGTON - The District of Columbia took a significant step toward winning a full vote in the House yesterday as the Senate cleared the way for legislation that would expand House membership for the first time in almost a century.
The Senate voted 62-34 to begin debating a measure that also would grant an extra seat to Utah, enlarging the House to 437 seats. In 2007, supporters of the bill fell three votes short of overcoming a Senate filibuster against it.
"All lights are on go. There can be no turning back now," said Eleanor Holmes Norton, the district's nonvoting delegate in the House since 1991.
Voting-bill sponsors were optimistic they could win Senate approval by the end of the week after changes proposed by Republican opponents are considered. The Senate would start to work out differences with the House in hopes of quickly sending a bill to President Obama, who has indicated he would sign it. A court challenge is considered a certainty.
Its backers said that for a district of about 600,000 residents to be without a vote in the House is an injustice similar to past civil rights violations.
"The district has a population roughly equal to or in fact greater than the states of Alaska, North Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming," said Sen. Joseph Lieberman (Ind., Conn.), a chief sponsor of the legislation.
"But, sadly, its residents have not been allowed to be full participants in our democracy."
Even if the legislation is enacted soon, the two new representatives would not be seated until the next Congress starts in January, 2011. To forge bipartisan support, the bill would balance the new seat for the heavily Democratic district by adding one in solidly Republican Utah.
Critics of the measure, pointing to the Constitution's requirement that House members be chosen "by the people of the several states," say it is blatantly unconstitutional and that the District of Columbia can win a voting seat in the House only through a Constitutional amendment - a route that has been tried before.
"Only states may be represented in the House of Representatives," Sen. Jon Kyl (R., Ariz.) said.
Backers say the Constitution provides Congress broad powers to regulate the District of Columbia - enough to give it a representative.
Now, the delegate from the District of Columbia can vote in committee but not on the final passage of bills.
District of Columbia residents only won the right to vote in U.S. presidential elections in 1961.