WASHINGTON — Inspired by the lurching course of California's Prop. 187, a bill that passed the House on Thursday would make it more difficult for federal courts to block state voter initiatives.
The measure would put an end to a system that allows a single federal judge to halt by injunction an initiative passed into law by state voters and instead turn such decisions over to three-judge panels.
Prop. 187, the state's anti-illegal immigration initiative, was approved at the polls last November, but its enforcement has been blocked ever since by an injunction ordered by a Los Angeles federal judge.
The House bill, approved Thursday on a 266-159 vote, represented the first legislative victory for freshman Palm Springs Republican Sonny Bono. If approved by the full Congress, Bono's bill would have no retroactive effect on Prop. 187, which seeks to deny most public services to illegal immigrants.
But it would reform a system that has frustrated some voters in several states--including Colorado, where the constitutionality of an anti-gay initiative is on hold pending judicial review, and Oregon, where a right-to-die initiative is under similar scrutiny.
"We are here to represent the people and why do they have a referendum? Because sometimes people are not represented, so they can do that themselves," a hoarse-sounding Bono said as two hours of spirited debate over his maiden bill came to a close.
Bono seemed moved by the very process as he stood to address the House on behalf of the first piece of legislation he has offered since he took office in January. The bill's success was something of a rite of passage for a congressman better known for his years as a pop singer than his prowess as a politician.
"It was a first outing for me, the first time I was truly challenged at that level. It's an undeniable thrill," he said. "A rush that is rare."
The bill, which moves next to the Senate, would refer voter-approved measures challenged in court to a three-judge panel named by the chief judge of the Circuit Court, and would expedite review by the U.S. Supreme Court.
"The bill will help end the games that lawyers play when they engage in forum shopping or judge shopping," Bono said in the statement he prepared but never quite delivered in the midst of the lively debate.
Endorsed by such congressional heavyweights as Illinois Republican Henry J. Hyde, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, the measure was approved with every Republican present in support.
"I want to congratulate the gentleman from California for initiating this excellent piece of legislation," Hyde said of Bono.
Democrats angrily opposed the measure as "an abomination of a bill," warning that it would further stretch an already overburdened court system and cost the taxpayers needless money.
"This is a bad, bad bill. This is bad, bad public policy," Melvin Watt (D-N.C.) said ominously, suggesting that the legislation would benefit California alone and boost Bono's image as a lawmaker.
The phone was ringing with calls of congratulations when Bono returned to his office Thursday afternoon. But he said he would spend little time basking in the glow of victory. "Like in show business, you're only as good as your next record," he said.