THE U.S. SENATE had a chance yesterday to make history. It chose instead to add another unconscionable chapter to that well-worn volume that could be titled "The Second-Class Status of the People of the District of Columbia." A few Republicans showed enough gumption to vote for principle and against party interest. Most Republicans, led by their leaders and egged on by President Bush -- who talks about democracy from Burma to Zimbabwe but not for his own neighbors -- did the reverse.
That a bid to bring D.C. voting rights legislation to the floor failed by a mere three votes is both heartbreaking and infuriating. What's most upsetting is that the vote was a refusal even to consider a bill that would have given the District a voting member in the House of Representatives, while giving another House seat to Utah. In remarks before the vote, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) made an impassioned plea to his colleagues to, at the very least, engage in a real debate. "My gosh," he said, "when has the United States Senate been afraid to debate a constitutional issue as important as this one?" He got his answer in the 57 to 42 vote that probably kills the bill for this year.
Opponents, mainly Republicans led by Sen. Mitch McConnell (Ky.), have pointed to their belief that the measure is unconstitutional. They say their opposition has nothing to do with depriving a majority-black city of a voice that would most likely be Democratic. No doubt there are strong arguments on both sides of the constitutional question; scholars of renown are divided. But the way to resolve the question is in court. That's why the bill included a provision for expedited review to the Supreme Court. The opponents' unwillingness to go to the court suggests they weren't all that confident in their constitutional argument.
The most cynical aspect of the debate was the lip service Mr. McConnell and other opponents gave to voting rights -- only if done properly, via an amendment to the Constitution. Are we really to believe that they would back a measure that could lead to their worst fears -- two senators from the mainly Democratic District of Columbia? And if so, where have they been all these years? Perhaps D.C. residents should hope that the soon-to-be retired Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), an opponent who said he'll introduce a constitutional amendment, will accomplish in the next few months what he hasn't bothered with during his 30 years in the Senate.
Disappointment in yesterday's outcome should not obscure the fact that a comfortable majority of the Senate, as well as the House, is in favor of voting rights. The bill's progress this year -- and supporters say they are not giving up hope for this session -- is a sign of growing discomfort with what Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) called the "palpable injustice" of D.C. disenfranchisement. The Republican senators who joined with Mr. Hatch to break party lines in a vote for what is right should be commended. They are: Richard G. Lugar (Ind.), Susan Collins (Maine), Olympia J. Snowe (Maine), Arlen Specter (Pa.), Norm Coleman (Minn.), George V. Voinovich (Ohio) and Robert F. Bennett (Utah).