Price too high' for D.C. voting rights

For Immediate Release:

April 21, 2010

Contact:Matthew Cella and Joseph Weber

Washington Times

Democrats withdrew a bill on Tuesday to give the District the voting rights it has long sought in the House of Representatives, saying the "price was too high" after learning of Republican plans to introduce an amendment that would eviscerate the city's gun laws.

Buoyed by the support last week of President Obama, House Democrats seemed prepared to vote this week for a bill similar to one passed in the Senate last year, even though that measure contained an unpalatable amendment weakening local gun restrictions.

But Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District's nonvoting representative, said House Democratic leaders over the weekend received an updated Republican amendment that would have gone much further than the one attached to the Senate bill.

She said the new amendment would have barred city officials in the nation's capital from enacting laws that would restrict concealed or open carry of guns, diminished the authority of the city's police chief to deny concealed-carry licenses, and prohibited city leaders from preventing guns from being taken into city buildings.

"These provisions are so over the top, they are unworthy of serious consideration," said Mrs. Norton, who can vote in committee but not on the floor. She said the updated amendment, which she described as drafted by the National Rifle Association, also likely would have cost the support of Democratic senators who had favored a voting rights bill.

NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam said the updated amendment was necessary because D.C. gun laws remain too restrictive even after the Supreme Court ruled in June 2008 that the city's 30-year-old near-total ban on handguns was unconstitutional.

"It's a reasonable amendment, and people understand that the only thing it does is preserve the right to self-defense for law-abiding people in the District of Columbia," he said.

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer said he was "profoundly disappointed" and that he made the decision to pull the bill from consideration in consultation with Mrs. Norton.

"The price was too high," said Mr. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat. "That bill should be unfettered by any other provision, and members of Congress should vote on this matter solely on the merits of the proposition itself."

He said it was unlikely the bill would be considered again this year.

The bill would have increased the size of the House from 435 members to 437 members, providing one full House vote for the heavily Democratic District and an additional seat for Republican-leaning Utah in an attempt at a bipartisan compromise.

But another complication arose when Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican, who had long supported such a compromise, announced earlier this month his opposition to the plan because it called for the additional seat in his state to be elected at large. Mr. Hatch said he would urge his Senate colleagues to vote against the bill and threatened a filibuster.

In the District, city officials roundly denounced the amendment when it was introduced in the Senate last year by Sen. John Ensign, Nevada Republican, but they have disagreed on whether it was too high a price to pay for voting rights.

The Ensign amendment would have eliminated gun-registration requirements in the District, as well as laws prohibiting ownership of automatic weapons and sniper rifles, and prevented the mayor and the D.C. Council from adopting new restrictions on gun ownership.

Mrs. Norton said she was eager to win passage of the voting rights bill while a Democratic president was in office and because "large [Democratic] majorities in the House and Senate cannot be assured in the current political climate." Critics said the bill would compromise public safety and lead to more gun violence in a city once routinely called the "murder capital" of the United States.

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty supported the bill, while his declared challenger, D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray, opposed it. The D.C. Council also was divided on the issue.

On Friday, Mr. Obama issued a statement urging Congress to "finally pass legislation that provides D.C. residents with voting representation" while making no mention of the gun amendment.

The League of Women Voters, a national voter education and advocacy group, announced its opposition to the bill Monday.

Mrs. Norton acknowledged that even without the voting rights bill, the District could face congressional interference with its gun laws, which have been in flux in recent years.

City officials began rewriting the laws immediately after the 2008 Supreme Court decision, and those laws have since become the subject of litigation.

A March 2009 lawsuit argued that a roster of handguns deemed acceptable for registration was restrictive. That lawsuit was dropped when the D.C. government in June expanded its list of guns that residents could seek to register.

A District Court judge last month ruled against a handful of plaintiffs backed by the National Rifle Association and led by Dick Heller, the plaintiff in the Supreme Court case, who argued that city laws requiring gun registration and prohibiting assault weapons and large-capacity ammunition feeding devices were unconstitutional.

Another lawsuit filed in August by Alan Gura, the Alexandria, Va., lawyer who successfully argued the Heller case, challenged city laws banning the carrying of handguns in public. It asks that the District issue licenses to carry guns in public to legal gun owners in the city and to people with valid carry permits from outside the city. That lawsuit is pending in U.S. District Court.

Because Article 1, Section 2 of the Constitution says members of Congress must be elected "by the People of the several States," the 600,000 residents of the District, a federal territory, have no voting congressional representation. Its designation as a federal territory also puts the District under the control of Congress, which has authority over most city laws.

Attempts to give the District voting rights made it to the House floor twice.

In 1978, a constitutional amendment that would have given the District representation in the House and the Senate was passed by Congress, but failed to be ratified by the required number of states. In 1993, a measure granting the District statehood was easily defeated in the House, by a 277-153 vote.

White House deputy press secretary Bill Burton on Tuesday reiterated Mr. Obama's support for D.C. voting rights, but asked whether the president had any plans to restore license plates to the presidential limousine that bear the city logo "taxation without representation," he responded that "in terms of issues that are pressing on the president's agenda, I don't know that that's towards the top of the list."

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