WASHINGTON — The people of the nation's capital have waited more than two centuries to get a vote in Congress, and now it looks like Washington's roughly 600,000 residents will have to wait even longer.
Majority Leader Steny Hoyer announced Tuesday that lawmakers will not take up legislation this week giving District of Columbia citizens a vote in the House of Representatives, and said he was "profoundly disappointed."
The Democrat also said it was unlikely the enfranchisement bill, which became embroiled in a gun rights dispute and other issues, would be considered in the House later this year.
With Democrats, the main supporters of the legislation, expected to lose seats in the November election, the possibilities for resurrecting the measure next year were uncertain.
The bill would have increased full House membership from 435 to 437, giving District residents a vote while adding a temporary at-large seat for Republican-leaning Utah, which narrowly missed out on getting an extra seat after the 2000 census.
The House passed the bill in 2007 and the Senate approved it last year. But the Senate bill came with an amendment that would have forced the District to effectively eliminate its tough gun control laws.
House members, including the District's nonvoting delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton, have been trying for the past year to find a formula that would allow a vote while satisfying the powerful gun rights lobby in Congress. But in the end, no resolution was reached.
Norton said she and Democratic leaders in the House were "shocked and blindsided" over the weekend to receive what she said was a National Rifle Association-drafted gun bill to accompany the voting act.
She said the proposal was even stronger than the gun provision passed in the Senate, barring the district from prohibiting or interfering with the carrying of firearms, either concealed or openly, in public. She said it would also have made it easy for people to carry firearms without permits and would stop the district from prohibiting guns in city-controlled buildings.
"The new sections will surely bring down the support we have had of anti-gun Democratic senators," she said.
The gun measure was needed "because the District of Columbia decided to ignore the ruling of the Supreme Court of the United States," NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam said, referring to a 2008 ruling that affirmed the Second Amendment right to bear arms and stated that the district's 32-year-old ban on handgun possession was unconstitutional. "It's a reasonable amendment and people understand that the only thing it does is preserve the right to self-defense for law-abiding people in the District of Columbia."
At least six of the 13 members of the District of Columbia City Council, including the body's chairman, said they would not support the bill with any amendment that would weaken the city's strict gun laws. The city's mayor, Adrian Fenty, had said he supported Norton's efforts to go forward with the bill. Fenty said he believed the majority of residents wanted to push forward on voting rights and that gun rights advocates would try to weaken the District's gun laws even without a voting rights bill.
"We cannot walk into a stick-up job by the NRA, and the gun amendment would have been a Faustian bargain at the expense of public safety," said council member Phil Mendelson.
Democratic gun control supporters in both the House and Senate indicated they might vote against the voting rights bill if the gun provision remained a part of it.
"I believe the District will become much less safe, and the opportunity for criminals, mentally unstable persons and juveniles to purchase weapons will increase dramatically," Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat, said in a statement, adding she would vote against the bill if it repeals D.C.'s firearms laws.
Hoyer said there were a combination of factors in the decision not to take up the bill, but the bottom line was that "the price was too high."
D.C. residents, who pay federal taxes and serve in the military, have been denied a vote in Congress since the parameters of the capital were set in 1801. In 1978, the House and Senate approved a constitutional amendment giving them a House vote, but it died after failing to get ratification by three-fourths of the states.
"We thought finally we'd be able to get that vote," Yvonne Cooper, 51, a federal government worker and lifelong D.C. resident, said Tuesday as she waited to pick up her car at a garage in the city.
However, Cooper was among those who believed voting rights should not be linked to weakened gun provisions.
"I would not have supported it," she said. "That's such a firecracker issue in itself."
David Slenk, who calls himself one of the relatively few D.C. residents who oppose voting rights, said the change would go against the Founding Fathers' intention.
"I think it was set up as a protection so that D.C. would not get undue influence because the federal government is here, and I think that is appropriate," Slenk said.
The bill was further complicated by the opposition of Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, who previously had backed the concept of giving both the District and Utah a new vote.
Hatch contended that the House bill, which would have given his state a fourth at-large seat in the House, was unconstitutional because Utah residents would have been able to vote for two members of the House – one from their district and one from the at-large seat.
Utah also has less reason now to support the bill because the state is likely to pick up a new seat anyway after the 2010 census.
Associated Press writer Jessica Gresko contributed to this report.