The Speaker’s Lobby: Guns and Noses

By: Chad Pergram, FOX News

12 March 2009

It was March 22, 2007. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) and others had scheduled a press conference to mark history: the House was on the precipice of passing a bill to grant Washington, DC, voting representation in Congress.

The debate leading up to the vote was feisty. At one point, Norton chastened Rep. David Dreier (R-CA) when he tried to get in a word edgewise on the House floor.

“Will the gentlewoman yield?” Dreier asked Norton.

Norton wouldn’t and fired a verbal fusillade at Dreier.

“I will not yield, sir!” thundered Norton. “The District of Columbia has spent 206 years yielding to people who would deny them the vote! I yield you no ground! Not during my time! You have had your say and your say has been that you think that the people who live in your capital are not entitled to a vote in their House. Shame on you!”

But despite Norton’s outrage, the District of Columbia has now spent 208 years yielding. And it could even yield a little longer. There was no vote that day to grant Washington, DC a vote in the House. And Pelosi and Norton scrubbed the celebratory press conference.

That’s because Republicans swooped at the last moment and forever linked a vote for Congressional representation for the District of Columbia to the city’s ban on handguns. The GOP strategically outplayed the Democrats that day on what’s called the “Motion to Recommit.” A motion to recommit (MTR) is the final chance the minority has to kill a bill. If approved, it essentially “recommits” the bill to committee. And if written artfully, the MTR can make a certain number of lawmakers from the majority either abandon their principles by voting against the motion to recommit or vote with the minority to derail the bill.

Two years ago, House Republicans concocted a doozy of an MTR. Just weeks before the District of Columbia vote, a federal appeals court declared Washington’s ban on handguns unconstitutional (the U.S. Supreme Court later upheld that ruling). So the GOP crafted an MTR that would gut Washington, DC’s gun laws.

Democrats knew they were in trouble. They were now in the majority because a number of moderate Democrats defeated Republicans around the country. But those same moderate Democrats, like then-freshmen Heath Shuler (D-NC) and Jason Altmire (D-PA) were also strong Second Amendment advocates. A quick nose count revealed the majority would lose enough Democrats for the Republicans to kill the bill on the MTR. So Democrats yanked the measure off the floor for another day.

Democrats “fixed” the bill a month later to inoculate it from a similar Republican effort. The bill passed the House and died in the Senate. But it didn’t matter. President Bush wouldn’t have signed the plan anyway.

Fast forward to 2009.

Democrats increased their majorities in the House and the Senate. And elected a president who favored voting representation for the nation’s capital. Plus, and perhaps more importantly, Democrats tweaked its guidelines on motions to recommit to prevent Republicans from offering MTR’s that could detonate similar bills like the DC representation bill.

So Democrats and President Obama appeared poised to grant Washington, DC voting rights in the House. That is, if it could pilot the legislation through the often nettlesome Senate.

This time, Democrats garnered plenty of votes in the Senate. So the bill appeared to be a fait accompli in the House. Until Republicans again velcroed the gun issue to the legislation.

In the Senate version, Sen. John Ensign (R-NV) persuaded his colleagues to adopt an amendment to give Washington residents access to handguns.

The House was prepared to vote on the DC bill last week. But like March, 2007, Democratic leaders again realized they had a procedural problem. Nearly every piece of legislation that comes to the House floor needs what’s called a “rule” to outline the guidelines for debating the actual bill. Democrats planned the strip out Ensign’s amendment from the House package. But then the National Rifle Association (NRA) sent out signals it might “score” the vote on the rule.

“Scoring” votes is what interest groups like the NRA, the AFL-CIO, the American Conservative Union and others do to give lawmakers “ratings.” The lobbying organizations pick certain votes and monitor whether Members of Congress vote with or against them on key issues. The tabulation is that lawmaker’s “score.”

If the NRA in fact scored the rule vote and conservative Democrats voted against including Ensign’s amendment, the NRA would tell voters in rural areas those lawmakers voted against Second Amendment rights.

The NRA never confirmed whether it was scoring the rule vote in the House. But if it did, House Democrats realized that it could lose a sizable number of moderate Democrats who represent districts where firearms are important. And that could be a recipe for killing the bill, this time before it ever hit the floor.

Democrats are now in a slow scramble to try to figure a way out of this legislative cul-de-sac. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) says they’re considering options ranging from a stand-alone District of Columbia voting bill and a separate gun regulations bill. But another senior House Democrat conceded that he didn’t think there was a solution to this problem.

There’s another unique element to the Washington, DC, voting representation legislation. In addition to creating a seat for the capital, it would also temporarily add one for Utah. The idea is that a Democrat would probably hold the District of Columbia seat. So to secure some GOP support, lawmakers decided to balance that with a Republican district.

However, history shows that one cannot always predict future voting patterns. For instance, there was a similar arrangement when they added Alaska and Hawaii to the union in 1959. The supposition was that one would be the Democratic state, the other Republican. Ironically, it was Hawaii that was supposed to be the Republican state and Democrats were expected to prevail in Alaska. However over the past 30 years, Republicans have dominated Alaska politics and Democrats have done the same in Hawaii. But that trend could be receding with the elections of Hawaii Governor Linda Lingle (R) and Alaska Sen. Mark Begich (D).

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) sponsored the Senate version of the DC-Utah bill. But Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) opposes it on constitutional grounds. Chaffetz says the Constitution is clear that the House can only seat representatives from states and commonwealths.

Constitutional experts contend that could get the bill thrown out in court even if the House finds a way to pass it and President Obama signs it.

But that’s the least of the Democrats worries now. The NRA has successfully hamstrung the effort to provide Washington, DC a vote in Congress by blending it with Second Amendment rights. In a letter to moderate House Democrats, Eleanor Holmes Norton pleaded with supporters of gun rights to “avoid an unprecedented split in our rights on a civil rights bill.”

So Democrats are now stuck on guns and noses: Republican efforts to repeal Washington, DC’s gun laws and whether Democratic leaders can count enough noses to stand up to the gun lobby.

– Chad Pergram covers Congress for FOX News. He’s earned an Edward R. Murrow Award and the Joan Barone Award for his reporting on Capitol Hill.