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D.C. Gains Vote on House Floor

By Kent Jenkins Jr.
The Washington Post


The House voted Tuesday to grant the District of Columbia a voice on the floor of Congress for the first time in its history, narrowly approving a plan that gives Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) a vote in the full House.

In the first political confrontation of the 103rd Congress, which convened Tuesday, the House's Democratic leadership beat back a late surge of opposition to the plan and preserved a 22-vote margin.

The measure, unanimously opposed by House Republicans, gives Norton and representatives of four territories the right to vote on all contested issues that come before the full House. Previously, they only voted in legislative committees.

GOP leadership called the vote unconstitutional and a Democratic "power grab," and vowed to fight it in court.

Norton, who researched the legal doctrine to support the legislation, called the House action "a spectacular, historic win."

"On 99 percent of the business of the House, the District will have a vote," she said. "This is something that only recently didn't seem possible."

Under the plan, the District's delegate and representatives from Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa and the U.S. Virgin Islands will be allowed to vote on virtually all contested matters in the House, except the final passage of legislation.

House Democrats initially accepted the proposal early last month, but opposition grew steadily after the GOP began to focus public attention on it. Democrats agreed Tuesday to weaken the delegates' power somewhat by preventing them from providing the margin of victory for any legislation.

House Republicans denounced the move, and Minority Whip Newt Gingrich said the GOP will go to court and attempt to overturn it, perhaps as early as this week.

In debate on the floor, Minority Leader Robert H. Michel called it "a raw grab for power" by Democrats and "unconstitutional, unprecedented and unacceptable, under any guise, whatever the motivation."

Tuesday's action was part of an unusually sharp battle over rules that will govern the House's procedure for the next two years. Rules are traditionally adopted on the first day of a congressional session, and the two parties traditionally fight over them. But House Democrats raised the stakes by proposing the new rule allowing the five delegates to vote on the floor.

Technically, the change revolves around an arcane parliamentary device called "the committee of the whole." Almost everything that happens in the House chamber, including virtually all the important business, occurs when it is in session as the committee of the whole.

Norton, a former law professor and a constitutional scholar, began arguing several months ago that because the delegates are already allowed to vote in legislative committees, they should also be allowed to vote in the committee of the whole.

She did not dispute that the Constitution allows only representatives of states to vote in the full House. But she contended that despite the broad powers of the committee of the whole, it should be treated like any other committee.

The proposal sparked opposition on several fronts. Some lawmakers, including several Democrats, disputed Norton's interpretation of the Constitution, arguing that the committee of the whole is, for practical purposes, the full House. Therefore, they contend, allowing delegates to vote there is unconstitutional.

But the most bitter argument was political.

Norton and the four territory representatives are all Democrats, and allowing them to vote on the House floor hurts Republicans. The GOP picked up 10 House seats in the November elections; Republican leaders denounced the rules change as a Democratic effort to wipe out half of those gains.

Republicans attacked the voting plan with particular vehemence on the House floor. Rep. Tom Bliley (R-Va.), quoting Virginia founder John Randolph, compared the proposal to "a dead mackerel on a moonlit night: It both shines and it stinks."

Democratic leaders moved to address the constitutional questions Tuesday by allowing the full House to override any vote in which the five delegates play a decisive role. Any time the delegates provide the margin of victory for legislation, a second vote will be held and the delegates will be excluded.

Or, as Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.) quipped, "Any time their votes count, they don't count." Moran and all other Democrats from the Washington area supported the rule change.