WASHINGTON (Reuters) - It has taken a little over 200 years, but Washingtonians finally sense that their quirky status as citizens without voting representation in the U.S. Congress might just be coming to an end.
The self-styled “capital of the free world” has been a democratic black spot for the United States -- drawing sharp criticism from rights groups and even the United Nations.
Residents of the District of Columbia, which is not legally a state, have had to fight for the limited voting rights they have since Congress relocated here from Philadelphia in 1800.
It took until 1961 to gain the right to vote in presidential elections, and they still have no full-fledged member of Congress -- either in the House of Representatives or the Senate -- despite having to pay federal taxes like everyone else.
But a determined grass-roots movement, a Democratic-controlled Congress, a weakened Republican president and a compromise involving far-away Utah has raised hopes that D.C. residents eventually might discard the “Taxation Without Representation” protest messages many carry on their car license plates.
“I’ve talked to activists in the city and they haven’t seen a moment like this in a very, very long time,” said Iler Zherka, executive director of DC Vote, a group campaigning for congressional representation for Washington.
Thousands of people, ranging from students to taxi drivers, are expected to join a march to Congress on Monday, the city’s annual Emancipation Day marking Abraham Lincoln’s 1862 signing of the act that ended slavery in the District.
The aim is to press lawmakers into passing a bill this week that, while not making the District a state, would raise the number of seats in the U.S. House by two -- one for Washington and one for Utah, which has been demanding more representation because of population changes.
The bill is to be taken up by the House on Thursday, where approval is likely. But it would still have to pass the narrowly divided Senate and be signed by President George W. Bush, who pointedly had the protest plates removed from presidential limousines and whose aides have advised a veto.
Washington’s heavily black and Democratic population has been seen as the main cause of long-standing Republican opposition to giving the capital a seat, so handing one to Republican-friendly Utah could greatly boost the bill’s chances of success.
Advocates also hope Bush would be reluctant to pick another fight with a resurgent Congress that is already challenging him over the Iraq War and other issues.
But the legislation has disappointed some rights activists, who say it sells Washington short by not giving it Senate representation and by leaving open constitutional questions that could make it vulnerable to legal challenges.
It would require an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to make the District a state with full representation by two senators and a representative in the House.
“I think the bill is wholly unworthy of the people of the District of Columbia,” said Timothy Cooper, executive director of advocacy group Worldrights.
“My fear, as well as the fear of others, is that this will completely deflate any move to get U.S. senators,” he said.
The bill is “flagrantly unconstitutional” -- ignoring the Founding Fathers’ stipulation that Congress members are elected by “the several states” -- and is virtually certain to be struck down by the courts, said Jonathan Turley, a professor at the George Washington University Law School.
Advocates of the bill say it is legitimate because the Constitution gives Congress the power to exercise “exclusive legislation” over the capital.