Prospects for D.C. Voting Rights Take a Hit

Advocates for Washington, D.C., voting rights thought they had it made when Democrats took over Congress. A deal giving Utah one more red-state congressman seemed likely to allow the blue district a voting representative. But that has changed. Lisa Nurnberger of member station WAMU reports.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Ever since the founding fathers carved the boundaries of the District of Columbia out of a swamp on the Potomac, Washingtonians have been without a vote in Congress.

Mr. ILIR ZHERKA (DC Vote): People who lived here at the time, a very small number, were disenfranchised almost immediately. And the residents were very surprised, as were other Americans. I think there was an assumption that the Congress would provide for DC residents.

SIEGEL: Ilir Zherka heads a group called DC Vote. He says that Washington DC's situation has been one of historic humiliation - no vote in Congress, no vote for president until 1961, limited power of the purse. But now those pushing for a DC vote on the House floor say that this should be the year that it happens.

Lisa Nurnberger of member station of WAMU reports.

LISA NURNBERGER: Now that Congress is ruled by Democrats, the party that supported DC voting rights for years, one would think a DC vote in the house would be a done deal.

Virginia Republican Congressman Tom Davis and DC Democratic Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton drafted a bill they thought no one could oppose. It would give the district a voting member of Congress and also give Utah another House seat, which the state just missed getting after the last census.

Ms. ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON (DC Democratic Delegate): Utah feels aggrieved for 10 years. We feel aggrieved for 200, and that's a perfect match.

NURNBERGER: Norton says neither Republicans nor Democrats should object to the Bill - since Utah is a red state and DC is blue, it wouldn't change the balance of power.

But giving Utah another House seat means it also gets another vote in the electoral college. DC already has three, so that wouldn't change, but Utah's vote troubles some high-ranking Democrats, especially Henry Waxman of California, whose committee has jurisdiction over the bill. He says it could give Republicans the edge in the next presidential election.

Representative HENRY WAXMAN (Democrat, California): There have been a number of scenarios where the elections have been - for president in the electoral college have been so close that one could imagine that to have been the case.

NURNBERGER: One election has resulted in a one-vote difference in the electoral college, and that was in 1876. The 2000 election was decided by five electoral votes and that's what's fresh in Waxman's mind, so he's proposing changing the bill so Utah gets its additional House seat after the 2008 election. But Utah Republican Congressman Chris Cannon says that won't fly with Utah or Republicans.

Representative CHRIS CANNON (Republican, Utah): Having an electoral vote was a big deal and has been part of the consideration from the very beginning and so taking that off that table, I think probably meant that it was not going anywhere.

NURNBERGER: And co-sponsor Tom Davis says Senate Republicans may not stand for much fiddling.

Senator TOM DAVIS (Republican, Virginia): If you don't couple this in a bipartisan way, you will never get it through a Senate filibuster. There's just no way, right or wrong, that you're going to be able to move this. It's the way we've always expanded Congress, the way we brought Alaska and Hawaii in, one Democrat and one Republican seat.

NURNBERGER: Voting rights advocates say the House needs to pass the bill as soon as possible because Congress will soon get bogged down with other business, like the budget.

Meanwhile, Utah is having its own problems with the bill. Delegation members disagree over whether the new House seat should be at large or in a district. Voting rights advocates will be on the Hill this week urging lawmakers to get over their differences.

Ilir Zherka says the message will be clear.

Mr. ZHERKA: The United States is the only country in a democracy anywhere on the planet where the government denies voting representation to people who live in the capital.

NURNBERGER: He says America can't export democracy if it's denied at home.

For NPR News, I'm Lisa Nurnberger in Washington.

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