Gun Amendment Threatens D.C. Voting Bill

Lawmakers in the House this week are scheduled to take up a bill that would give Washington DC a voting member in Congress. Just last week the legislation appeared to be a sure thing. But then the Senate added a controversial amendment rolling back the city's gun restrictions. That's put the bill in jeopardy.

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Congress is also debating an issue that's a big deal to their neighbors in Washington, D.C. It's a bill giving the nation's capital a voting member of Congress. Now this legislation seems sure to pass, until the Senate added an amendment that would remove a number of restrictions on guns in Washington.

That created a problem for some House members and for the bill. Here's NPR's Audie Cornish.

AUDIE CORNISH: Conservatives like Nevada Senator John Ensign have been looking for any place they can to slip in gun rights measures.

Senator JOHN ENSIGN (Republican, Nevada): Put it this way: if you sometimes have to look for a vehicle to be able to put it on, and this is the vehicle we are able to get it on. Now whether it stays on will be another story.

CORNISH: Actually, that's this story. The D.C. voting rights legislation would add two new members to the House: one for Democratic-leaning Washington, the other for the state next in line for a seat. According to the last census, that would be Republican-leaning Utah.

What does any of this have to do with guns? Arguably, not a whole lot. But Senator Ensign succeeded in adding an amendment to the bill that would strip the District of its gun registration laws and assault weapons ban, much to the annoyance of number two Senate Democrat Dick Durbin of Illinois.

Senator DICK DURBIN (Democrat, Illinois): We don't debate guns around here much anymore. We used to. Basically, we've reached a point where there just aren't many people who will stick their political necks out to vote for sensible gun control - just too big a hassle. The NRA's going to target you back home.

CORNISH: It looks like Durbin was onto something. In the House, Democratic leaders put the voting rights bill on hold because conservative lawmakers were about to add a gun amendment just like the Senate's. Leaders worry they wouldn't be able to stop it.

House Delegate ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON (Democrat, Washington, D.C.): They've got to think of a way to get this off the bill.

CORNISH: That's D.C. House Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton. She won't even entertain the thought of passing D.C. voting legislation with gun rights attached.

House Delegate NORTON: I've got no choice between a vote for American citizens and a completely unrelated and reckless gun bill. That is a non-choice.

CORNISH: Democrats tried a procedural move to block all amendments to the bill. But Norton says word spread that the National Rifle Association would count support for that as a vote against gun rights and target lawmakers accordingly. That sent D.C. voting rights supporters scrambling the Capitol Hill.

Mr. EUGENE KINLOW (Public Affairs Director, D.C. Vote): Let's see, just to recap: You have the next one, two, three, four, five offices in Longworth.

CORNISH: Here's Eugene Kinlow talking with volunteers in a cafeteria at the Capitol. He's the public affairs director for D.C. Vote, a coalition of voting rights groups. Kinlow is frustrated because he does not want the gun provisions in the bill. His group is courting nervous Democrats from pro-gun districts.

Mr. KINLOW: For the last year or so that we've been fighting about this issue, it's been about an opportunity to make sure that people had an opportunity to vote in the people's house, the House of Representatives. It is interesting that over the last 40 hours, it's not about that anymore, it seems, that to a number of people here on the Hill and nationally, then this becomes about the Second Amendment and the right to own a handgun.

CORNISH: The National Rifle Association declined to comment for this story, but has told the Washington Post, quote, "This is an important issue, and all options are on the table." Some NRA supporters in Congress say they nevertheless don't appreciate even the appearance of interference.

Representative BARON HILL (Democrat, Indiana): You know, I've always been a supporter of the NRA, but the NRA is wrong on this one.

CORNISH: That's Indiana Democrat Baron Hill.

Rep. HILL: They should not be meddling into the affairs of the House. The House and its leadership and its members are to be independent in terms of its own rules, and they are wrong on this one.

CORNISH: Hill says it's an unhappy situation when an outside group tries to control procedural votes or the very management of bills. But D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton plans on using a similar tactic. At her request, the leadership conference on civil rights will count a procedural vote allowing gun measures as a vote against D.C. voting rights. That will pit lawmakers' concerns about their ratings from civil rights groups against their ratings from the gun lobby.

Audie Cornish, NPR News, the Capitol.

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