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D.C. voting rights: What's the way forward?

On Sunday, the Post's editorial board revisted an issue I wrote about earlier this month: how local elected officials, exasperated by the ongoing failure to pass a compromise measure to give the District a vote in the House of Representatives, have turned their rhetoric toward pursuing full statehood.

"The frustration is understandable -- but it would be premature, and possibly foolhardy, to abandon the seven-year campaign for congressional representation," the editorial reads. "What's overlooked in that thinking is that while chances may be slim for voting rights, they are close to nonexistent for statehood." The last House vote on statehood, in 1993, found 105 Democrats voting against it.

The editorial went on to urge all parties to buck up: "There is still time in this Congress, where the votes are lined up for voting rights, to come up with a strategy to stop unacceptable amendments to gut the city's gun laws."

However, there are few ideas as to what form such a strategy might take.

The D.C. House Voting Rights Act enjoys majority support in both houses of Congress, but so too does an amendment stripping city gun laws that has proven too noxious to bear for local officials and many District residents. Activists insist there's a way forward, but neither they nor congressional leadership have publicly endorsed any proposal. Part of that, I've determined, reflects a fear of tipping one's hand, and part of it reflects the sheer difficulty of countering the lobbying power of the National Rifle Association.

Multiple voting-rights supporters say privately that the best hope for the D.C. House Voting Rights Act is that the gun language would pass first through some other mechanism -- most likely, by being attached to a must-pass piece of legislation over the summer. The NRA has an interest in forcing a congressional gun vote prior to the midterm elections. And that, some hope, would divorce the gun issue from the voting rights measure, ending the Hobson's choice of vote-with-guns or no vote at all.

In that case, D.C. still finds its gun laws gutted by Congress. That's an outcome that some privately see as inevitable -- at least this way, the District gets a vote out of it, they argue. But that argument has been taboo since March 2009, when Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) publicly endorsed the prospect of accepting the gun changes to great public outcry. That has meant that advocates are left to do a difficult dance behind the scenes, maneuvering to prevent a gun vote while preparing to benefit if in fact it takes place.

The other hope is a lame-duck session. That is, that after the Nov. 2 midterm elections, enough members of Congress would be freed from the NRA's political shackles -- e.g., by losing their re-election bids -- that they would vote to pass a voting-rights bill without voting to include the gun language. That requires adopting the cynical view that a goodly proportion of the congressional Democrats supporting the gun language actually don't want to -- not too hard to believe. The other caveat: Congress would likely be focused during the short session on other issues -- particularly an energy bill and spending measures. Would congressional leadership make time for voting rights?

There's another long-shot corollary -- that in the Senate, where 62 senators voted for the gun language, it might be possible to convince three of them no longer facing re-election to change their minds. (Democratic senators Byron Dorgan (N.D.), Evan Bayh (Ind.), and Arlen Specter (Penn.) fit that bill.)

If a deal isn't done after a lame-duck session, the picture gets even more complicated. The Democratic majorities will be slimmer, for one, and the premise for the Utah compromise at the heart of the DCHVRA may very well be obliterated by new census numbers.

So there are ways forward, but they are not without obstacles. Meanwhile, those out on the campaign trail are free to dream the all-but-impossible dream: statehood.

By Mike DeBonis  |  June 21, 2010; 2:06 PM ET
Categories:  The District  
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