WASHINGTON -The District of Columbia moved a step closer yesterday to gaining full membership in the House of Representatives as the Senate voted 61-37 to give the nation's capital and Utah each a House seat.
Yesterday's historic vote will be followed by a vote next week in the House, where a similar bill is expected to pass easily. President Barack Obama has expressed support for Washington voting rights and is expected to sign the bill when it reaches his desk.
Residents and officials of the District of Columbia - a 61-square-mile area with a population of almost 600,000, about 55 percent of it black - have engaged in a long, slow fight for representation in Congress.
"This is a great victory," said Sen. Joseph Lieberman, an independent Democrat from Connecticut and a co-sponsor of the bill. "More directly, it's a victory for the 600,000 people of the District of Columbia."
Granting Washington a vote could heal a wound that has social, racial and political overtones.
The legislation, to offset the certain Democratic gain from the District, also adds a fourth district to Republican-leaning Utah. It would increase House voting membership by two, to 437.
However, the action still faces obstacles. It almost surely will face a court challenge from opponents who believe that the Constitution restricts voting representation to states, which the District of Columbia is not.
Still, proponents of voting rights for Washington rejoiced at being on the cusp of victory.
"Next week, we will be voting to keep a promise that is nearly two and a quarter centuries overdue," said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat. "It was a promise of our founders, a promise put into words by the father of the Constitution, James Madison, when he wrote that the people of the federal city 'will have their voice in the election of the government which is to exercise authority over them.' "
Proponents say that it's past time for Washington residents to have a voice - and a vote - in the national government. Lieberman argued that Washington is the only capital in the democratic world in which residents can't vote for a representative.
"They're not only taxed without representation ... as our founders reminded us is a form of tyranny ... they're taxed very heavily. They pay the second-highest rate of federal taxation per capita," Lieberman said. "This is a moment to end this. It's an antiquity, but it's a profoundly unjust and, frankly, un-American antiquity."
That may be, but opponents say that a District of Columbia representative is unconstitutional.
"I have said previously my quarrel is not with the intent of the legislation, but with the vehicle with which Congress is seeking to effect or bring about this change," said Sen. Robert Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat who believes that Washington voting rights should be sought through a constitutional amendment. "Simply passing a law that grants voting rights to an entity that is not a state ... is plainly circumventing the Constitution."
A House committee oversees Washington, which has been a source of irritation at times for residents. They complain that Congress - particularly during Republican control - has used Washington as a test laboratory for issues ranging from school vouchers to pushing the courts to roll back local gun-control laws.
Associated Press contributed to this article.