WASHINGTON — The District of Columbia moved a step closer Thursday to gaining full membership in the House of Representatives, as the Senate voted 61-37 to give the nation's capital and Utah each a House seat.
Thursday's historic vote will be followed by a vote next week in the House, where a similar bill is expected to pass easily. President Barack Obama has expressed support for Washington voting rights and is expected to sign the bill once it reaches his desk.
Residents and officials of the District of Columbia — a 61-square-mile area with a population of almost 600,000, about 55 percent of it black — have engaged in a long, slow fight for representation in Congress.
"This is a great victory," said Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a independent Democrat from Connecticut and a co-sponsor of the bill. "More directly, it's a victory for the 600,000 people of the District of Columbia."
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Granting Washington a vote could heal a wound that has social, racial and political overtones.
However, the action still faces obstacles. It almost surely will face a court challenge from opponents who believe that the Constitution restricts voting representation to states, which the District of Columbia is not.
Still, proponents of voting rights for Washington rejoiced at being on the cusp of victory.
"Next week, we will be voting to keep a promise that is nearly two and a quarter centuries overdue," said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md. "It was a promise of our founders, a promise put into words by the father of the Constitution, James Madison, when he wrote that the people of the federal city 'will have their voice in the election of the government which is to exercise authority over them.' "
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. Lieberman argued 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."
That may be, but opponents say that a District of Columbia representative is unconstitutional.
"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."
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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