Thursday was a historic day on Capitol Hill.
For the first time in ages, the counting of electoral votes -- usually a routine matter -- was stopped, albeit for a few hours.
At a joint session of Congress, presided over by Vice President Dick Cheney, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio) challenged the results from Ohio, the state that put President Bush over the top, handing him a victory over his Democratic rival, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry.
The vote count was the last step in officially declaring Bush the winner of the November balloting.
Almost like the movie
Did you see "Fahrenheit 9/11"? The opening scene in Michael Moore's controversial pro-Kerry film has a string of House members -- led by the African-American members of the House -- pleading, just begging, for at least one senator to join them in objecting to the 36-day 2000 Florida recount. It would have been a symbolic protest, but symbols make powerful statements.
Not one Democratic senator joined their cause in 2001. Vice President Al Gore, who lost to Bush, did not want the protest, and the Democratic senators respected his wishes. Boxer said Thursday she made a mistake.
"Four years ago I didn't intervene, I was asked by Al Gore not to do so, and I didn't do so,'' said Boxer. "Frankly, looking back on it, I wish I had. I do. I have to admit that. I'm not one that likes to admit mistakes. But, it really wasn't about Al Gore, it was about the voters, and I made a mistake."
It was different this year. Once again, the Congressional Black Caucus led the charge; the disputed areas in Ohio were in many African-American precincts.
Here's how the system works: Under federal rules, it takes at least one House member and one senator to object to the counting of the electoral votes. Once Boxer and Tubbs Jones filed their objection to counting Ohio's electoral votes, the joint session was suspended while each chamber debated whether the objection should be sustained.
The last objections to electoral votes were made in 1877 and 1969.
Illinoisans and the vote
I don't want to leave you in suspense over the vote. The Senate, after about an hour of debate, voted 74-1 to uphold the Ohio vote. Boxer was the solo no vote. The Illinois Democrats, Dick Durbin and Barack Obama, voted with the majority. It was Obama's first Senate vote.
The House spent a little over two hours on the question, and the motion lost 267-31. All the Illinois Republicans who were present cast no votes, along with Illinois Democrats Melissa Bean and Dan Lipinski. Illinois Democrats Danny Davis, Lane Evans, Jesse Jackson Jr. and Jan Schakowsky -- the most progressive Democrats in the delegation -- voted yes.
Jackson and his father, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, have made voting rights -- and making sure every vote counts -- a crusade.
Jackson Sr. was all over Capitol Hill the last several days lobbying senators. Jackson Jr. has been pushing a constitutional amendment to guarantee a national right to vote. At present, each state decides the rules and has its own system.
Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, was not keen for Boxer to file the objection.
Nonetheless, when it came time to speak, Durbin, to my surprise, opened the door to supporting Jackson Jr.'s constitutional amendment. So did Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa).
"I am loathe to jump on the bandwagon for constitutional amendments,'' Durbin said from the Senate floor. "But I will take this one seriously.''
Obama's first speech
Obama, the only African-American in the Senate, did not follow the Congressional Black Caucus -- or even the progressive Illinois House Democrats -- on this one. I don't blame him. It would be unecessarily sticking his neck out in his first week on the job.
"There are different elections for different parts of the country and these differences turn shamefully on differences of wealth and race,'' Obama said in his first speech from the Senate floor.
Jackson Sr. earlier in the week told me that he was inclined to cut Obama some slack on this one because he was so new. On Thursday, Jackson was elated that Congress -- and the nation -- was forced to focus on voting rights. Regarding Durbin and Obama he said, "They did what the club did. At least they spoke out.''
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