WASHINGTON -- The drive to give the more than half-million residents of the District of Columbia a vote in Congress failed in the Senate yesterday, falling just three votes short of the 60 votes needed to overcome a threatened filibuster and begin debate.
But the bill garnered more Republican support than it has in 30 years of discussion on the issue, and its backers pledged to try again - if not in this session, then in a new Congress in which Democratic gains could spell the difference.
"I feel strongly about D.C. voting rights," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat.
Noting that there are "a lot of other things crying for attention" in the Senate, he said he chose to bring the issue to the floor because the district's residents were fighting and dying in Iraq without a voice in Congress.
"This is fairness," Reid said. "It's the right thing to do."
The Senate vote was 57-42, with eight Republicans voting to allow the bill to be considered.
Citing constitutional concerns, President Bush had threatened to veto the legislation. The House passed the bill in April by a vote of 241-177, short of the two-thirds majority needed to override a veto.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, strongly opposed the measure, calling it "clearly and unambiguously unconstitutional," and saying the remedy for disenfranchisement of the district's residents is to amend the Constitution to make the District of Columbia a state.
A proposed constitutional amendment to do that failed in 1985 because it failed to win the support of two-thirds of the states.
Since then, proponents have tried to persuade Americans to embrace the idea of congressional representation for residents of the district. Arguing that the federal government recognizes the District of Columbia as a state in matters of commerce and taxes, they organized under a new umbrella effort, DC Vote (dcvote.org), and began a grass-roots lobbying campaign.
The most recent effort would have added a new House seat for the largely Democratic District of Columbia and given largely Republican Utah another House seat, raising the voting membership in the House of Representatives to 437.
Proponents attracted a wide array of political support, inspiring a bipartisan lobbying push from former Rep. Jack Kemp, a Republican, and the Democratic mayor of Washington, Adrian M. Fenty, who was allowed on the floor to buttonhole senators.
"Not since segregation has the Senate blocked a voting-rights bill, and this is a voting-rights bill," Fenty said at a rally Monday.
The District of Columbia has had a nonvoting delegate in the House since 1971.
The unlikely yoking of the District of Columbia and Utah was the brainchild of Rep. Tom Davis, a Virginia Republican, who described it as an attempt to "take the partisanship out of this."
Efforts to empower D.C. residents in the past always came up against the partisan reality that Republicans - and GOP-dominated state legislatures - were unlikely to vote for a safe Democratic seat.
With a population that is 57 percent black, the district has voted Democratic in every presidential election since 1964. If the District of Columbia were a state, with the congressional representation allotted by the Constitution, its voting habits would likely add one Democrat to the House and two to the Senate - one reason that some Republican-dominated legislatures have balked at granting statehood.
Utah, meanwhile, was aggrieved that the 2000 Census left it just 857 residents shy of getting a fourth member of the House - a decision the state appealed to the Supreme Court, saying the census had failed to count thousands of residents serving abroad as Mormon missionaries. Utah, which has not voted for a Democratic president since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964, lost the case.
Johanna Neuman writes for the Los Angeles Times.