WASHINGTON — For decades, efforts to give the District of Columbia a voting representative in Congress have run into a brick wall. Constitutional amendments failed to win the states' support. Ad campaigns about "taxation without representation" did not help the cause.
Now, unexpected political forces are aligning behind a plan to give the district a House vote -- along with a new seat in Congress for Utah -- when lawmakers return for their lame-duck session in early December.
"This is closest we've come in at least 30 years," said Ilir Zherka, executive director of DC Vote, an umbrella lobbying group. "The stars are aligned on this."
The unlikely union of the District of Columbia and Utah is the brainchild of Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.). Davis, who represents the district's Virginia suburbs, said he offered his proposal to "take the partisanship out of this."
Efforts to empower D.C. residents in the past always came up against the partisan reality that Republicans were unlikely to vote for a safe Democratic seat for the district, a Democratic stronghold with a 57% African American population.
The problem for Utah is that the 2000 census left it 857 residents short of getting a fourth member of Congress -- a decision the state protested to the U.S. Supreme Court, saying the census failed to count the thousands of Mormons serving abroad as missionaries. Utah lost the case.
For the district, not being declared a state by the founding fathers means the city's 515,000 residents pay federal taxes, cast votes in presidential elections and serve in the military without having a voting member in either the House or the Senate. The district does have a nonvoting at-large representative, Democrat Eleanor Holmes Norton.
By balancing the district with reliably Republican Utah, Davis won bipartisan approval in May by the Government Reform Committee for his bill, which would raise the total number of House members to 437.
In the House Judiciary Committee, legal experts questioned the legitimacy of giving Utah an at-large seat, which was the plan at the time because Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. balked at enacting a redistricting plan to carve out a fourth district.
But after Democrats swept to power in the midterm election, some officials in Utah worried about their cause in the new Congress. So the governor called the Legislature into special session, beginning next week, to approve a four-district map.
"I'm confident we can do that," said state Sen. Curt Bramble (R-Provo), incoming majority leader in the Utah State Senate. "Whether or not Congress will act, that's out of our control."
The folks at DC Vote are banking on it. They have an ad campaign to move public opinion -- after their polls found that 78% of Americans thought D.C. residents already had congressmen and senators. And they are lobbying the Senate, where they say their best weapon is Jack Kemp, the former congressman and vice presidential candidate who has been privately buttonholing his former colleagues.
"My argument to them is that you can't send residents of the city of D.C. to Afghanistan and Iraq to fight for the right to vote of people there without allowing the residents of D.C. to elect a member of Congress," said Kemp, a Republican who said he was trying to get the GOP "back to the Abraham Lincoln wing."
Another potent weapon in DC Vote's arsenal is Kenneth W. Starr, the former special prosecutor who investigated President Clinton. Starr, now dean of Pepperdine University's School of Law, wrote in a widely quoted article with former D.C. Court of Appeals Chief Judge Patricia Wald that Congress had the constitutional right to give D.C. residents a voting representative.
Davis agrees, noting that the courts have "never, ever overruled Congress" in its legislation affecting the district.
But Jonathan Turley, George Washington University law professor, believes the D.C. portion of the bill is "flagrantly unconstitutional" because the Constitution gives representation to "the people of the several states."
It would take a constitutional amendment to give the district unquestioned congressional and Senate representation, he said. Addressing it legislatively means another Congress could always revoke the voting privilege later.
"This is the equivalent of having Rosa Parks go to the middle of the bus, the ultimate compromise of principle," he said, referring to the civil rights protest Parks launched when she refused to move to the back of a bus, as required by Jim Crow laws. "Either D.C. residents are entitled to be full citizens or not."
If Congress passes the bill giving the district a voting seat and Utah an additional seat, most observers believe President Bush would sign it, even though he said earlier this month, "It's the first I've heard of it."
The larger issue for Democrats in Congress is whether they want to risk a constitutional challenge to the D.C. representative while Utah's new representative keeps voting. "The irony here," said Turley, "is that Utah could get an extra seat in Congress only to have the district seat struck down as unconstitutional."
But Davis thinks Congress is eager to pass the bill. "We're going to make a run for it in the lame duck," he said, predicting the bill would become law in the next two years. "Republicans have been slower to the table, but once it is explained [as a civil rights issue], they understand it is the right thing to do.
"This is an anomaly of history, and it needs to be corrected," he said.