Congressional leaders abandoned efforts yesterday to win passage of the D.C. voting rights bill this summer after city leaders wouldn't withdraw their opposition to an amendment that would do away with the District's strict gun-control laws.
The bill, which would give the District a voting member in the House of Representatives and add a member from Utah, has languished on Capitol Hill since the House and Senate approved the gun amendment in February.
Many city leaders, as well as Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), fiercely opposed the gun amendment, but Democratic leaders in Congress were unable to round up enough votes to remove it.
At a news conference yesterday, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said he was giving up hope of getting a D.C. voting rights bill approved soon.
"There is not a consensus among the leadership of the District of Columbia on this issue as I understand it. And as a result of there not being consensus, I don't think we're going to be able to move the bill at this point in time," said Hoyer, whose dual role as a congressional leader and a resident of neighboring Prince George's County has made him the point man on Capitol Hill on the voting rights legislation.
Hoyer's announcement came after an attempt by Norton on Friday to salvage the legislation, which until recently was viewed as the District's strongest effort to get a voting member of Congress.
After Norton and Hoyer met Friday, they tried to hammer out a compromise that would weaken the gun amendment, but they were unable to sell it over the weekend to D.C. government officials and other interested parties, according to an e-Mail Norton sent to congressional leaders yesterday.
"People who support the bill were divided on whether to go forward," Norton said in an interview.
Norton said she remains optimistic that there will be other opportunities to bring up the bill. "We do not believe it is hopeless, but we do believe if we moved now, we would be walking straight into a hopeless situation," she said.
But D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) said he thinks the "window of opportunity" has passed for the year.
"Now people are going to move onto other things," said Evans, one of the few council members willing to accept the gun amendment. "It was a good effort on everyone's part, but at the end of the day, it just didn't happen, and that is very sad for the District."
The apparent demise, at least in the short term, of the voting rights bill underscores the power of the national gun lobby and District officials' hardening views about setting their own firearms policies.
More than 20 Senate Democrats, including Mark Warner and James Webb of Virginia, and more than 100 House Democrats supported an amendment that would have removed most of the city's gun control laws and restricted the D.C. Council's power to enact new ones.
"It's clear that the [gun rights amendment] has a majority of votes," Hoyer said, calling it "difficult, if not impossible," to consider the voting rights measure on the House floor without the gun measure.
District leaders had few answers yesterday about how they want to proceed.
Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) has said previously that the city could support legislation with the gun amendment, and then fight to overturn the rider, but that stance put him at odds with other city leaders.
"Going forward, I remain committed to working with our Congressional leaders, as well as members of the Council of the District of Columbia, to secure full voting representation as fast as humanly possible," Fenty said in a statement.
Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) said "it would have been difficult to face the city with a credible argument that it was worth the price" to accept a bill that also included the gun amendment.
Gray said he would like to continue to press for a proposal that would give the District a vote in the House of Representatives. He also said he fears that the window is closing on legislation that also includes heavily Republican Utah, which was a selling point for GOP lawmakers who had long resisted D.C. voting rights.
Utah was also included because it just missed getting an additional representative during the decennial reapportionment of House seats based on the 2000 Census.
Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman Jr. (R), a supporter of the bill, was recently appointed ambassador to China, Gray said. And with the 2010 Census approaching, Gray said, Utah might not need the legislation to gain an additional member of Congress.
"We have to put everything back on the table," said council member Michael A. Brown (I-At Large), who heads the Special Committee on Statehood and Self-Determination. "I am obviously disappointed, but I am relieved because this bill is not what I think most residents of the District of Columbia wanted."