DC Voting Rights Debacle

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The Nation

DC Voting Rights Debacle

Last week, twenty-two Democrats failed to muster the courage of Republican Senator Richard Lugar and vote against a draconian gun amendment that had no business being attached to a voting rights bill.

The bill in question was the DC Voting Rights Act, which would give 600,000 tax-paying DC residents a voting Representative in Congress for the first time. Prospects looked good, until Republican Senator John Ensign of Nevada was permitted to introduce his amendment, which would strip the city of its right to regulate guns--we're talking registration requirements, age limitations, vision tests, anything.

Most blame the Republican Party, which--with the exception of Lugar--supported the amendment. But we already knew the GOP has little interest in civil rights legislation and that nothing gets them really passionate as guns, God and gays.

The Democrats, on the other hand, want us to see them as the party of civil rights, the party of change, the people's party. In this case it is more reminiscent of the party whose Southern members repeatedly torpedoed civil rights legislation with filibusters and unacceptable amendments.

Blame begins with Majority Leader Harry Reid, who seemed to forget the "leader" part of his title. He should have fought like hell to keep this off the floor--everyone involved in this issue knew that gun amendments were an obvious poison pill for the legislation. If he couldn't keep it off the floor, he should have pushed to hold the caucus together and maintain its commitment to expanding the franchise.

Instead, it seems Reid signaled that this was a "free vote" for Senators to appease the NRA, which would be scoring it. Perhaps Reid figured there would be a clean bill delivered from the House, and then they could get rid of the amendment in conference. So with a nod and a wink the amendment went through--including Reid's vote of approval--62-36.

Now the House finds itself in a tough position. The Rules Committee postponed its decision on whether to permit a vote on the gun amendment when the NRA let them know they would score that decision. Also, House members in pro-gun states now fear the consequences of not voting on the Ensign amendment after the Senate passed it so resoundingly. Voting rights advocates are confident that they can come up with a strategy to pass it out of the House. But there are no guarantees.

Did Senator Reid really think Nevadans--which ranked first in foreclosure percentage in 2007--give a damn about gun regulations in the district? Did Democratic senators truly believe they would lose re-election bids against a busted GOP based on their votes on the Ensign amendment? Are they so afraid of the big, bad NRA? If in fact they were intent on gutting DC's right to regulate guns, maybe they should have had the courage to introduce that as a stand-alone bill rather than attach it to one addressing the fundamental issue of taxation without representation.

One Republican Senator who supports DC voting rights and felt no choice but to go along with his caucus was heard to mutter after the amendment vote, "Just what this city needs--more guns."

Thank you, Harry Reid. Thank you, Party of Change.

Greg Kaufmann

Greg Kaufmann is the poverty correspondent for The Nation and a contributor to BillMoyers.com. He covers poverty in America primarily through his blog, This Week in Poverty. Greg has been a guest on Moyers & Company, MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry, NPR’s Radio Times with Marty Moss-Coane, Here & Now, The Thom Hartmann Program, Stand Up! with Pete Dominick and The Matthew Filipowicz Show, as well as various local radio programs. His work has also been featured on Common Dreams, CBSNews.com, NPR.org, WashingtonPost.com, and BusinessInsider.com. He serves as an advisor for Barbara Ehrenreich’s Economic Hardship Reporting Project.

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