The Speaker's Lobby: The Price

By: Chad Pergram, FOX News

21 April 2010

"It's the price we gotta pay.

And all the games we gotta play.

Makes me wonder if it's worth it to carry on." - Twisted Sister, The Price

On Tuesday morning, reporters walked into the office of House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) for his regular chat about the legislative schedule. Hoyer's aide Maureen Beach handed out copies of "The Weekly Leader," a document that details what bills will hit the floor this week. The last item was HR 157, the District of Columbia Voting Rights Act.

Hoyer is nothing if not prepared for these sessions. Like a lawyer arguing a case in court, the Maryland Democrat always brings with him a battery of papers and note cards, some marked with pink, green and yellow highlighter. They serve as "evidence" to help him make his case to a skeptical media.

But this time, Hoyer brought something else: four, loose-leaf sheets pulled from a legal pad. They were filled with words Hoyer later said he scribbled in longhand just minutes before meeting with the journalists.

"We will not be considering HR 157, the District of Columbia House Voting Rights Act," Hoyer announced reading from the handwritten notes. "I am profoundly disappointed."

HR 157 is a bill to grant residents of Washington, DC a vote on the House floor. Even though residents of the District of Columbia pay taxes and can be drafted, they have no say in Congress.

Hoyer is one of the chief advocates to grant the nation's capital voting rights. But he signaled that this legislation is untenable right now.

"The price was too high," the leader said.

Hoyer didn't expand on what that "price" was. But the "price" encompasses a lot of things. It involves what lengths Democrats were willing to go to pass this bill. And part of that is the price Democrats may have to pay at the ballot box this fall. After all, voters are already wary of them after passing health care reform and are now suffering from Obama-fatigue.

To wit: on Capitol Hill, things are rarely as they seem. In other words, a quarrel about taxation without representation has little to do with taxation and representation. That's because the issue of voting rights in the nation's capital is inextricably linked with one of the most-polarizing issues in American politics: guns.

Despite the Second Amendment, Washington, DC boasted a municipal ordinance which banned persons from carrying handguns. So when the District of Columbia voting legislation first came down the pike in 2007, Republicans nearly managed to blow up the bill by artfully attaching a provision that made handguns legal. That legislation died in the Senate. But it came back in the House last year, sans handguns. Even though the Supreme Court overturned the city's firearms code. When the legislation moved to the Senate, Sen. John Ensign (R-NV) altered the House legislation by attaching another handgun provision. That meant the bill had to return to the House. Which is where Hoyer's "price" valuation kicked in.

The gun issue makes Democrats sweat bullets. They won the House in 2006 and cemented their majority in 2008 by electing moderates from Ohio, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, Indiana and Idaho. These are places where Second Amendment protections are paramount. The addition of the Ensign amendment meant the National Rifle Association would trace how vulnerable Democrats would vote on the DC bill. Liberal Democrats wanted to strip the gun language from the legislation. But that would torpedo the support of moderate Democrats the NRA was monitoring.

In the end, Democratic leaders couldn't carve a compromise to satisfy those lawmakers the NRA was watching. And the city's non-voting representative to Congress, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) demanded Hoyer ditch the bill because the new gun language was "written by the NRA."

"What came back was not the old Ensign amendment," Norton said. She claimed the new gun language went far beyond what she was willing to accept, allowing persons to tote concealed weapons and permitting them to carry guns into businesses and apartment complexes.

"It could take the nation's capital into the wild west," Norton said. "They seriously misjudged me if they think I would have ever accepted any amendment that odious."

In fact, the Democrats' failure to forge an accord between their anti-gun liberals and pro-Second Amendment moderates speaks volumes about how volatile gun issues are for their party. Especially in an election year.

And Republicans know it.

"This bill has a long history with gun control," said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee. "It shows how conflicted the Democratic party is over firearms."

It has a "long history with gun control" because Republicans made sure of that. Starting in March of 2007.

That's when Smith helped craft the  provision that would marry the District of Columbia voting issue to gun policy. As Democrats were on the verge of passing the bill, Republicans offered a "motion to recommit" to the legislation. Motions to recommit are the final effort afforded the minority party to kill the bill. Smith's artful motion to recommit the legislation to committee would have lifted the city's handgun ban. Or it would have forced dozens of moderate Democrats to vote against it, enraging the NRA and giving Republicans a wedge issue.

The GOP knew this was good politics. And Democrats knew Republicans were exacting a price from them.

The "price" was too high that day too for a new majority to start sacrificing freshmen members from districts which oppose gun control. So Democrats temporarily yanked the legislation off the floor.

The DC vote bill returned last year. Democrats believed the plan was finally primed for passage. They boasted bigger majorities in the House and Senate. And a Democratic president would sign the bill into law.

The legislation sailed through the House. But the inclusion of the Ensign amendment forced Democrats to shelve the legislation for more than a year.

Before putting it on the schedule. And pulling it yet again.

As Hoyer said, the price was too high.

Democrats want to grant residents of Washington, DC, with a vote in Congress. But at what cost? By sacrificing lawmakers already skittish about their election prospects and making them take an anti-gun control vote?

Lamar Smith said the move "surprised" him. After all, he was prepared to manage the Republicans' opposition to the measure on the House floor Thursday.

"It became explosive. It became toxic," Smith said.

I've never witnessed a piece of legislation that was so snake bit. The bill keeps coming back year after year, each time on the precipice of passage, only to implode at the eleventh hour. Lucy Van Pelt's antics with Charlie Brown's football are solicitous compared to the treatment this bill gets.

During the March, 2007 DC vote debate, Eleanor Holmes Norton refused to yield the floor to Rep. David Dreier (R-CA) when he tried to get in a word edgewise.

"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!" thundered Norton.

But the District of Columbia is still yielding. After championing the cause for voting rights, Norton could have secured a vote for the city on the House floor. But that would come at a price: more firearms on the city streets.

Hoyer could have had the vote. But that may have ignited a civil war in the Democratic Caucus between pro and anti-gun members. And Democrats gun-shy from the health care fight aren't ready to go to the mat on firearms.

Call it inflation. Call it gouging. Call it extortion.

Democrats are bargain shopping. This bill would have drained what political capital they had left in the bank.

And in this election climate, the price was simply too high.

-         Chad Pergram covers Congress for FOX News. He's won an Edward R. Murrow Award, the Joan Barone Award and a National Headliner Award for his reporting on Capitol Hill.

-         The Speaker's Lobby refers to a long, ornate hallway that runs behind the dais in the House chamber. Lawmakers, aides and journalists often confer there during votes.