WASHINGTON — One of the first acts of the new Republican-controlled House is to take away the floor voting rights of six delegates representing areas such as the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam and American Samoa.
Five of those delegates are Democrats, while one, from the Northern Marianas Islands, is an independent.
The GOP decision to rescind the ability of delegates to vote on amendments on the House floor was the predictable outcome of a longtime party divide. Democrats extended the voting rights in 1993 when they controlled the House, Republicans disenfranchised the delegates when they became the majority in 1995 and Democrats restored delegate rights when they regained control of the House in 2007.
"This is a very undemocratic way to start the 112th Congress," said Virgin Islands Del. Donna Christensen. With the new GOP rule, she said, "there are over 4.5 million Americans who don't get input into shaping the final bill."
The partisan battle has always been as much about political symbolism as the actual ability of delegates to influence national policy. Under the Democrats, delegates could vote on the floor on amendments – in what is known as the Committee of the Whole – but not on final passage. And their votes came with the stipulation that they could not change the outcome of a vote.
Delegates do have full voting rights at the committee level and can rise through the committee ranks.
Republicans have long argued that the Constitution, which says the House should be made up of representatives chosen by the "several states," rules out voting by non-state delegates. The office of new House Speaker John Boehner on Tuesday said Boehner "continues to believe . that delegates should not vote in the Committee of the Whole because they constitutionally cannot vote on the House floor."
"It's very apparent to me that we need to focus on the Constitution and (under the Constitution) states are to be represented in the House of Representatives," said House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier, R-Calif.
Republicans also point out that delegate votes violate the concept of equal representation. The average constituency for the 435 House representatives is about 700,000. While Puerto Rico has a population of almost 4 million and the District of Columbia 600,000, the other four, all territories, are considerably smaller. American Samoa has 95,000 residents, and The Northern Marianas 48,000.
But Democrats counter that, when Republicans sued to reverse the 1993 extension of voting rights, two federal courts ruled that Congress had acted within constitutional bounds. They also point out that the delegates represent U.S. citizens who serve in the military and are fighting and dying in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"To me it is unseemly in the 21st century that anyone would be stripped of a vote," said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, who has represented Washington D.C. since 1991.
Norton said the loss of limited voting rights was a "very bitter pill" for the people of the District, who a year ago where within sight of gaining a full vote in the House. The Senate voted to give the District a fully vested representative, but attached an amendment to weaken the District's tough gun control laws that was unacceptable to some House Democrats.
New Washington Mayor Vincent Gray said at a protest rally Tuesday that the GOP move to remove Norton's remaining voting rights was "the most outrageous insult imaginable."
Norton sought to prevent adoption of the new rule by offering a motion to set up a special committee to study the delegate voting issue, but it was defeated on a party-line vote.
Associated Press writer Jessica Gresko contributed to this report.