This vote was on whether to begin debating a controversial bill that would give the District of Columbia voting rights in the House of Representatives, and Utah an extra seat in the House.
Washington, D.C. currently has a “delegate” in the House, but she does not have full voting privileges – for instance, she can vote in committees, but not on the House floor. There is no D.C. senator. This is because D.C. is a district, not a state, and the Constitution only grants full representation in the U.S. Congress to states. The District of Columbia and other U.S. territories such as Guam, Samoa and Puerto Rico have delegates to the House who do not have full voting privileges.
The city of Washington, D.C. – whose license plates read “no taxation without representation” – has long sought full voting rights in Congress. But this has been a contentious and partisan topic, because giving voting rights to D.C. would, in essence, be giving Democrats an extra seat in the House. This is because the District votes overwhelmingly Democratic, in large part due to its majority black population, which tends to vote Democratic. To draw Republican support, the bill would also expand Utah’s number of members in the House with a safe Republican seat.
Because the measure is so contentious, Republicans had held up allowing the bill to be brought to the floor for debate. Typically bills are brought to the floor through a procedural motion called a “motion to proceed,” which is usually approved by voice vote as a routine matter. However, if a senator wants to hold up consideration, all he has to do is remove his consent – which was the case with this bill. Republicans had threatened to hold up its consideration indefinitely with a filibuster, causing Senate Majority Harry Reid, D-Nev., to file what is known as a “cloture motion,” which, in essence, is a vote on bringing debate on a bill or amendment to a close.
If the Senate votes to “invoke cloture” – or bring debate to a close – then lawmakers must either hold a vote on the legislation, amendment or motion in question, or move on to other business. This type of motion is most often called on contentious legislation where the leadership is concerned that consideration could be held up indefinitely by a handful of politicians. Invoking cloture can be difficult because of the 60-votes needed, a daunting task given the slim margin of Democratic control in the Senate.
No Republicans came to the floor to speak against the bill. However some who oppose giving D.C. full voting rights have argued that it would be defeated before the Supreme Court as unconstitutional.
Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said both sides have “decent” arguments, but that he rejects the notion that granting D.C. full voting rights would be unconstitutional. “We all know the argument that we should do this as a constitutional amendment is not a valid argument. It is a good argument, but the fact is it will never pass that way. There are 600,000 people in the District of Columbia, never contemplated by the Founders of this country to be without the right to vote. They are the only people in this country who do not have a right to vote for their own representative in the House of Representatives. This bill would remedy that situation,” Hatch said.
Robert Byrd, D-W.Va. and a stickler for procedure and proper order, said he is in favor of D.C. having full voting rights. But he opposes this bill because it would seek to amend the constitution through reinterpretation. He said that in 1978 he supported an amendment to the constitution that would have allowed D.C. a full vote in Congress.
“The historical intent of the Founders on this point is unclear,” Byrd said. “I oppose S. 1257, because I doubt that our Nation’s Founding Fathers ever intended that the Congress should be able to change the text of the Constitution by passing a simple bill.”
By a vote of 57-42, the Senate rejected Reid’s motion to end debate and allow the bill to be brought to the floor. Though more voted yes than no, for this type of motion a three-fifths majority of the Senate (60 votes) is required to be considered passed. Every Democrat but one (Max Baucus of Montana) voted for the motion to bring debate to a close and turn to the bill itself. Of Republicans present, all but eight voted against bringing debate to a close. The end result is, the cloture motion failed, and the Democratic leadership was not able to bring the bill up to the floor for debate.