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Senate Passes Bill Giving the District a House Vote

Mary Beth Sheridan // Published February 26, 2009 in The Washington Post

The U.S. Senate passed the DC House Voting Rights Act, but attached an amendment that would eliminate most of the District's gun control laws.

The Senate today passed a bill that for the first time would give the District a full voting member of the House of Representatives. But senators managed to attach an amendment that would scrap most of the District's local gun-control laws.

The 61-37 vote marked the first time in 31 years that the Senate had approved a D.C. voting-rights bill. The addition of the gun language could complicate the bill's passage into law, however, since it will be necessary to reconcile the Senate version of the legislation with the companion bill in the House. Voting-rights supporters hope the gun amendment can be removed in those negotiations.

The House is expected to approve the D.C. vote bill next week, and President Obama has indicated he will sign it into law.

"We are coming to a pivotal moment in a march that has gone on for years and years," said Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), the co-sponsor of the D.C. vote legislation, in a brief speech before the vote.

The Senate's Republican leader, Mitch McConnell (Ky.) said the bill violated the constitutional provision that House representatives should be chosen by the "people of the several states." The District is not a state, he noted.

"The Constitution is short because its authors wanted it to be clear," McConnell said. He added: "it could not have been more so" on the issue of House representation.

The D.C. vote bill would expand the House permanently by two seats. One would go to the strongly Democratic District, while the other would go to the next state in line to pick up a seat based on population count. For two years, that seat would be Republican-leaning Utah. It would then pass to whichever state qualified based on Census results.

Similar legislation died in the Senate two years ago after passing the House. But it benefited this time from the Democrats' pickup of at least seven seats in the last elections.

If it becomes law, the bill will expand the House for the first time since 1913. But it is likely to face a legal challenge that could go all the way to the Supreme Court.

The gun amendment is similar to a sweeping measure approved by the House last year that was fiercely opposed by the D.C. government. It would limit the District's authority to restrict firearms, repeal the D.C. semiautomatic gun ban and remove gun-registration requirements. It drew bipartisan support. Among those supporting the amendment were Virginia's Democratic senators, Mark Warner and Jim Webb.

Opponents denounced it on the Senate floor.

"It's reckless, it's irresponsible, it will lead to more violence," charged Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). She said that approval of the amendment would be "the first step to removing all common-sense gun regulation all over this land."

The sponsor of the amendment, Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) said his goal was "to remove the tremendous barriers and burdens on law-abiding citizens" in the city who were seeking to "protect themselves in their own homes."

He pointed to a large chart showing the D.C. murder rate over the years. "We want the law-abiding citizens to have the arms--not just the criminals," he said. Ensign charged that the D.C. government hadn't gone far enough in reforming its gun laws since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the city's handgun ban last year.

D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) and D.C. Council members disagreed, and furiously protested the firearms amendment.

"The District of Columbia leadership is fully united in its opposition to unwarranted amendments that would dramatically damage the District's carefully revised gun law and expose the District to great harm through the undoing of its laws," D.C. Council President Vincent C. Gray and Council Member Phil Mendelson, chairman of the council's public-safety commission, said in a letter to Congress released yesterday.

The voting-rights bill was the first such measure to pass the Senate since 1978, when Congress approved a constitutional amendment that would have given the District a House representative and two senators. That amendment died eight years later after failing to win enough support from the states.

Staff writer Hamil Harris contributed to this report.