WASHINGTON — The Senate is poised to vote soon on a historic measure to give residents of the District of Columbia full membership in the House of Representatives for the first time, potentially healing a wound that has social, racial and political overtones in this largely African-American city that's the nation's capital.
Senators debated Wednesday the merits and constitutional ramifications of a bill that would give the heavily Democratic District of Columbia — a 10-square-mile area with a population of almost 600,000, about 55 percent of it black — a voting House seat, along with a balancing new seat for Republican-leaning Utah.
Though a District of Columbia House seat still faces obstacles — Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., tried unsuccessfully Wednesday to derail the measure on a procedural vote — this is the closest that Washington has come to achieving its long-held dream.
While the Senate debated, the House Judiciary Committee began marking up its version of the bill, which is expected to pass the Democratic-controlled House easily.
President Barack Obama has expressed support for Washington voting rights and is expected to sign the bill once it reaches his desk.
Washington residents long have chafed under what they view as Congress' paternalistic role in the city's affairs without representation there, despite residents being federal taxpayers. That sentiment is summed up frankly by the motto on the district's license plates: "Taxation Without Representation."
"It's a big deal because D.C. has been treated as a colony of the United States," said Jane Freundel Levey, a historian for Cultural Tourism DC, a nonprofit group. "It's a big deal because D.C.'s budget is subject to the approval of Congress; no other city has that. It's a big deal because Congress controls our judiciary and courts."
Proponents say that it's past time for Washington dwellers to have a voice — and a vote — in the national government. Sen. Joseph Lieberman, an independent Democrat from Connecticut, a co-sponsor of the bill, noted that Washington is the only capital in the democratic world in which residents can't vote for a representative.
"They're not only taxed without representation . . . as our founders reminded us is a form of tyranny . . . they're taxed very heavily. They pay the second-highest rate of federal taxation per capita," Lieberman said. "This is a moment to end this. It's an antiquity, but it's a profoundly unjust and, frankly, un-American antiquity."
Opponents criticize the bill on constitutional grounds, saying that the Constitution limits voting rights to residents of states.
"I have said previously my quarrel is not with the intent of the legislation, but with the vehicle with which Congress is seeking to effect or bring about this change," said Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., who thinks that Washington voting rights should be sought through a constitutional amendment. "Simply passing a law that grants voting rights to an entity that is not a state . . . is plainly circumventing the Constitution."
Byrd, McCain and other critics promised that if the bill were successful, it would face a tough court challenge. Voting rights supporters say that they're willing to take their chances.
A House committee oversees Washington, which has been a source of irritation at times for residents. They complain that Congress — particularly during Republican control — has used Washington as a test laboratory for issues ranging from school vouchers to pushing the courts to roll back local gun-control laws.
"Citizens have felt that they are treated as second-class citizens in this country,"
said Ronald Walters, a University of Maryland political science professor. "They've been treated as a stepchild or guinea pigs for political experiments or pet ideas of members of Congress who wouldn't do it in their districts."
Washington residents gained the right to vote for president after a 1961 constitutional amendment gave the city three electoral votes. Residents cast presidential ballots in 1964 for the first time in 160 years.
In 1971, Congress granted Washington a nonvoting member in the House, a seat held today by Democratic Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton.
Two years later, Congress approved the Home Rule Act, which allowed Washington residents to elect a mayor and 13 city council members. However, Congress maintained the right to review and overturn Washington laws.
In 1978, the House and Senate passed a constitutional amendment granting full voting rights to Washington. The amendment required three-fourths of the states to ratify it within seven years. Only 16 states ratified it, and the amendment died.
Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., said in 1978 that Washington suffered from a case of the "four toos": fear that an elected official from the District of Columbia would be too liberal, too urban, too black or too Democratic.
Norton tried unsuccessfully in 1993 to get a Washington statehood bill through the House. In 2003, former Rep. Tom Davis, a Republican from Washington's Virginia suburbs, introduced a measure calling for the District of Columbia and Utah to receive one House seat each. That bill never got to a vote.
With Democrats in control of both houses of Congress and an African-American president in the White House, however, supporters of Washington voting rights think that this time the bill will get a fair — and successful — hearing.
"The point we're at now is a very significant moment," said Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., a member of the Congressional Black Caucus. "We have to find a way to do it."
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