Politics vs. principle

September 20, 2007

It may have been a matter of congressional courtesy or political savvy that prompted Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the delegate from the District of Columbia, to take the most positive view of the failure of the district's voting rights bill to move forward in the U.S. Senate. She noted that even as the bill came short of clearing a critical procedural hurdle by three votes, it had still generated considerable support. That may be a sign of progress, but disenfranchised Washington residents should continue to be outraged - and to keep fighting.

Washington has had a nonvoting delegate in the House of Representatives since 1971, but efforts to correct that injustice have been rebuffed, largely by Republicans who did not want to guarantee another likely Democratic seat. The current bill would make the district's delegate a full voting representative while adding a fourth seat for largely Republican Utah, which came very close to gaining another seat in the last census. The proposal passed the House with strong support from top Democratic leaders, Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and Majority Whip Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland.

But in the Senate, despite strong backing from Utah's longtime Republican Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, the Republican leadership was downright hostile and pressured members to vote against this modern-day civil rights bill. They succeeded in turning around at least one member, Republican Gordon H. Smith of Oregon, whom the bill's supporters had counted on. And even though eight other Republicans resisted the negative pressure, supporters garnered only 57 of 60 votes needed to stop a threatened filibuster.

That's a sorry throwback to tactics used against major civil rights legislation more than 50 years ago, and it underscores the fact that much of the opposition to the current bill is rooted in politics and not principle. Democrats will likely bring the bill back for consideration before this Congress adjourns. The handful of Democratic and Republican senators needed to switch their votes from nay to yea should be made to feel a lot of political heat for denying nearly 600,000 Washington residents their basic rights.

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