DC Voting Rights unlikely to move with defense bill
Updated 4:00 p.m.
By Ben Pershing
Congressional Democrats are leaning strongly against attaching D.C. Voting Rights legislation to a must-pass defense spending bill, as the complex politics of gun rights and a crowded appropriations schedule have closed off another potential avenue for the stalled local priority.
The D.C. bill, which would give the city a representative with full voting rights in the House (and give another House seat to GOP-leaning Utah), has been stuck in neutral since February, when the Senate passed the measure but added an amendment that would repeal most of the district's gun-control laws. The move angered local leaders, but pro-gun rights measures command strong support in both the House and Senate, making it difficult for Democrats to move the voting rights bill on its own.
Democratic leaders had in recent weeks been considering a new solution -- attaching the voting rights bill, without the gun language, to the conference report for the fiscal 2010 defense appropriations bill, which is certain to pass and will not be subject to amendment. But while no final decision has been made, House Democratic sources, requesting anonymity to discuss legislative strategy, said this week that leaders are now highly unlikely to use that maneuver.
Even though the voting rights bill would be moving without the controversial gun-rights legislation, Democrats fear that if they did use the defense measure, the National Rifle Association would "score" the vote as though it were directly related to the gun issue. Interest groups across the ideological spectrum rate the voting records of members of Congress, but few have as much clout as the NRA. If the group announced that it was scoring a vote for the defense bill (and the D.C. Voting Rights measure) as a vote against gun rights, it would put Democrats -- particularly those from conservative and rural districts -- in a very tough spot.
An NRA source said that while the organization did not make any specific threat, it did convey this message to lawmakers: "Should voting rights legislation move without the gun rights bill attached, we would have concerns."
The voting rights/defense maneuver is also unlikely to happen because the vehicle Democrats were eying may end up being too full to fit another passenger.
Because it has to pass, the defense appropriations bill is always an attractive place for Hill leaders to attach unrelated bills. So Democrats are currently considering using the defense bill to move an increase in the federal debt limit, and they may end up making the defense bill the base measure for an omnibus spending package -- encompassing all the other unpassed appropriations bills -- later this year. Adding the D.C. bill on top of that might be too much weight for one measure to carry.
And while members of the Democratic leadership, led by House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland, are eager to see the voting rights bill pass, top members of the appropriations committees are wary of mixing up their bills with the voting rights/gun rights controversy. Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), the head of the Appropriations subcommittee on defense, is himself a supporter of gun rights. And Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), chairman of that chamber's Appropriations Committee, is also opposed to the idea.
"Forget it," Inouye told Politico Tuesday.
Despite this setback, supporters of the D.C. bill have not given up hope that they can get the measure moved this year.
"We continue to look to bring the DC Voting Rights Act to the floor as soon as we have consensus on how to move forward," said Hoyer spokeswoman Stephanie Lundberg.
D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), the primary driver of the voting rights issue in the House, said in an interview Wednesday that using the defense bill was only one of "a menu of vehicles" she had presented to leadership, and there were plenty of avenues left for the measure's supporters to pursue.
As for the gun issue, Norton said that the NRA's scoring system shouldn't be taken so seriously, citing as an example the fact that the organization elected to score the Senate vote to confirm Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court. (Sotomayor prevailed, 68-31, despite the NRA's opposition.)
"The score is getting to be not worth much," Norton said, adding: "People are not always going to vote for guns no matter what. ... I don't think House and Senate members are sheep."
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