Hurdles Remain For D.C. Voting Rights Measure The first big hurdle is cleared: The Senate passed a measure last week that would allow the people of Washington, D.C., to get their first-ever vote in Congress. The plan is expected to easily pass in the House. Then comes the real battle — in court. The question: whether the measure is unconstitutional because the District of Columbia is not a state.
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Hurdles Remain For D.C. Voting Rights Measure

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Hurdles Remain For D.C. Voting Rights Measure

Hurdles Remain For D.C. Voting Rights Measure

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The people who live in the nation's capital are celebrating a voting rights victory in the Senate.

Representative ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON (Democrat, D.C.): Winning the Senate is like winning the lottery.

SMITH: That's Eleanor Holmes Norton, the delegate who represents Washington, D.C., in the U.S. House, but who can't yet vote. She was celebrating Senate passage of a bill that would give Washington a full voting seat in the House if the measure can clear Congress, the president, and expected constitutional challenges. NPR's Audie Cornish has the story.

AUDIE CORNISH: The debate over congressional representation for the District of Columbia has gone on for some 200 years. We're going to focus on last week. That's when the Senate's now-stronger Democratic majority revived and passed the D.C. Voting Rights Bill. The bill's sponsor, Joe Lieberman, says the move will right a longtime wrong.

Representative JOE LIEBERMAN (Independent, Connecticut): Six hundred thousand of our fellow Americans get taxed, get called to war, get regulated and supervised and everything else, and yet have no say here with a vote by a representative in the House of Representatives, and that is what this bill would do.

CORNISH: But that doesn't mean it's what Congress should do, says Republican Senator John Ensign.

Senator JOHN ENSIGN (Republican, Nevada): I just think it's blatantly unconstitutional.

CORNISH: Republicans like Ensign, and even some Democrats who oppose the bill, all point to Article 1, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution.

Sen. ENSIGN: It says that the members of the House and the Senate shall be elected from the several states, and it was very specific that District of Columbia was not to be a state.

Mr. JAMIE RASKIN (Law Professor, American University): But there is an answer to that.

CORNISH: That's Jamie Raskin, a constitutional law professor at American University. Raskin says D.C. voting advocates know this legislation will face a legal challenge, but that there is Supreme Court case law they can use to make their case.

Mr. RASKIN: If the District can be treated as a state for hundreds of statutory and programmatic purposes and many constitutional purposes, why not the most fundamental purpose of all, which is that of representation in voting?

CORNISH: But professor Jonathan Turley of George Washington University says that argument won't hold against the fact that D.C. is not a state.

Mr. JONATHAN TURLEY (Professor, George Washington University): For constitutional scholars, this bill is like watching a very slow car crash happen, where Congress is ignoring all the constitutional signs that this is not an avenue for receiving this type of relief.

CORNISH: Turley says Congress would be setting a dangerous precedent for not just D.C., but for U.S. territories and other nonstates by redefining what a voting member is.

Mr. TURLEY: That's not just destabilizing for the system, it's dangerous. It means that the Congress could create new members and manipulate its voting rolls. That's never been done in the history of this republic.

CORNISH: Lawmakers concede the issue will likely end up before the U.S. Supreme Court. The bill even includes a provision that asks for a speedy judicial review, which is fine with D.C. delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton.

Rep. NORTON: Nobody wanted this to linger in the courts for years, so we didn't see any harm in that.

CORNISH: D.C.'s mayor, Adrian Fenty, is striking a cautious tone.

Mayor ADRIAN FENTY (Democrat, Washington, D.C.): Knowing that we still have a House vote coming up, knowing that there's still a conference, we are not taking anything for granted. But sometimes, momentum is realized in just how far we've come, and how many obstacles have already been overturned.

CORNISH: As the mayor points out, the bill is in no way a done deal. The House version, like the Senate's, adds two seats: one for D.C., which leans Democratic; and one for Utah, which leans Republican. But the two bills do it slightly differently, and the Senate added an amendment that would roll back D.C.'s gun restrictions, potentially undermining some support among Democrats.

So, for now, D.C. voters don't have to worry about changing their license plates just yet. Car tags in the nation's capital carry the motto: Taxation without representation. Audie Cornish, NPR News, The Capitol.

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