WASHINGTON — A law to grant the District of Columbia voting membership in the House of Representatives, which seemed like a certainty two weeks ago, was stuck in the House on Tuesday, mired down by arguments over guns, school vouchers and other issues.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., who'd boldly predicted that the House would follow the Senate quickly in passing a bill to give the District of Columbia a voting House member and add another one for Utah, backed off Tuesday and said he now expected the House to pass the bill sometime this year.
Hoyer had hoped to bring the bill to a vote this week. Instead, he said he was negotiating with House Democrats and Republicans to find a compromise on possible gun-control amendments that could splinter Democratic support and kill the bill.
"This bill is about giving to 600,000 Americans what every one of their fellow citizens have, a voting member of the House of Representatives," Hoyer said. "I think it undermines our democracy to have our capital city not have a vote in the Congress in the United States. That's what we should be focusing on. Not guns. . . not anything else. I'm sorry that there have been extraneous issues put on this bill."
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The biggest hurdle is an amendment in the Senate version of the bill that would repeal most of the city's gun control laws. House Democrats slowed their version of the bill after the National Rifle Association and pro-gun-rights lawmakers also tried to attach language diluting Washington's gun-control laws.
That's given the House leadership a conundrum, Hoyer said. If a gun amendment passes and is attached to the bill, a majority of Democrats might vote against the legislation because they support gun control.
If a gun amendment isn't included, conservative pro-gun Democrats could join Republicans and prevent the bill from being considered.
Several proponents of the voting rights bill have called the gun amendment a poison pill provision and accused Republicans — who authored the amendment in the Senate — of using the District of Columbia as a laboratory for their political agenda.
Republicans hit back, accusing Democrats of treating Washington as their political petri dish.
They pointed to an amendment that Senate Assistant Majority Leader Richard Durbin, D-Ill., stuck in the $410 billion 2009 omnibus spending bill to zero-out funding for an experimental school-voucher program in Washington after the 2009-10 school year unless it's reauthorized by Congress and approved by the city's government.
The program, created by the Republican-controlled Congress in 2003, provides scholarships up to $7,500, and averaging $6,000, to about 1,700 Washington students to help pay for private schools.
"Reauthorization is clearly not the intent of the Democratic leaders who run Congress," House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said over the weekend. "Powerful teachers unions that oppose school choice contributed millions to Democratic campaigns last year, and the Democratic leadership in Congress now has the program in its crosshairs."
Durbin's amendment has blurred political lines. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who opposes school vouchers, told the Associated Press last week that Washington is a special case and voucher recipients who already are enrolled in private schools should be allowed to stay there.
Tuesday, the Senate voted down an amendment by Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., to strike Durbin's provision.
Earlier, standing beside enlarged pictures of smiling Washington voucher recipients, Ensign noted that, like President Barack Obama, many senators send their children to private schools.
"The senior senator from Illinois (Durbin) on the floor now . . . he sent his kids to private school," Ensign said. "Do you think that he did that because the private school is where he would get a poor education for his children?"
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