WASHINGTON Legislation giving residents of the U.S. capital a full voting member of Congress cleared a hurdle on Tuesday and headed toward passage, meeting demands first made by democratic activists two centuries ago.
On a vote of 62-34, two more than the needed 60, the Senate began formal consideration of the measure and accede to the demand of people in Washington, a city also known as the District of Columbia, for full political representation.
"Today is a breakthrough," said Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty, who came to Capitol Hill to watch the vote.
While Republicans may try to scuttle it with unacceptable amendments, the Senate was expected to pass the bill within days, and send it to the House of Representatives for final approval.
President Barack Obama has promised to sign it into law, but the measure faces an anticipated court challenge and could ultimately end up in the U.S. Supreme Court.
Each of the 50 U.S. states have two members in the U.S. Senate. The number of representatives each state has in the 435-member house is based on their population.
Washington, D.C., which use to be part of the state of Maryland, was created as a district by the federal government and designated as the U.S. capital in 1800. The Senate bill would give the District a representative, but not a senator.
Backers of the bill said the United States was the only democracy in the world that does not provide citizens of its capital a full voting member in its legislative branch.
"It's really astounding. It's time to right this injustice," said Senator Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut independent and a chief sponsor of the legislation.
Opponents say that giving Washington's nearly 600,000 residents a representative would violate the U.S. Constitution, which declares that representatives be elected exclusively by the states and that Washington should remain a "federal district" administered by Congress.
"Only states may be represented in the House," argued Senator Jon Kyl, a member of the Republican leadership.
Backers say the Constitution provides Congress broad powers to regulate the District of Columbia -- enough to give it a representative.
To attract bipartisan support, the legislation seeks to provide a political balance. It would increase the House to 437 members, giving one new representative to the overwhelmingly Democratic capital city and another other to the Republican-leaning state of Utah.
The House passed similar legislation in 2007, but Republicans blocked it in the Senate. Obama backed the measure during the 2008 campaign, which saw Democrats expand their control of the House and Senate.
District of Columbia residents only won the right to vote in U.S. presidential elections in 1961. Since 1970, they have had a House delegate who can vote on legislation in committee, but not in the full House.
(Additional reporting by Jeremy Pelofsky)
(Editing by David Storey)