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Press Conference With Senator Joseph Lieberman, Senator Orrin Hatch, Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, District Of Columbia Mayor Adrian Fenty

Press Conference

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Location: Washington, DC

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SEN. LIEBERMAN: Good afternoon. You know, I feel like doing something very unsenatorial, which is to simply say, yes! (Laughter.)

This is a great victory. And honestly, most directly, of course, it's a victory for the 600,000 people of the District of Columbia who've been denied the basic right to have voting representation in Congress. But the truth is, this is a victory for America because this vote today is a significant step forward in closing the gap that exists between the ideals on which this country was founded and the reality, as experienced by those 600,000 people who happen to live in our nation's capital.

I'm very grateful for the support given by Senator Reid, the majority leader, who could not be here for this. This was in the end, though, a bipartisan victory. We got 61 votes. That's what we need -- we needed 60, and we would not have gotten it without the principled and steadfast support of my friend and colleague from Utah, Senator Orrin Hatch.

And Orrin, I would welcome you to the podium at this moment.

SEN. HATCH: Well, thank you, but I'll defer to Eleanor first.

DEL. NORTON: But this is the Senate, so -- (laughter).

SEN. HATCH: Oh, okay. I have no problem deferring to you. (Laughter.) Eleanor is always whipping me around, is all I can say.

This is a -- this is a very, very important bill. Six hundred thousand people have been denied a franchise to vote all these years. It wasn't expected to be that large of a community. And of course, we made our case on the floor, and I believe that case has been persuasive.

I've done extensive research on this, and I think there are good conservative and good liberal constitutional scholars on both sides of this issue. This is an appropriate case for ultimate disposition by the Supreme Court. I believe the court will uphold this bill. And the reason I do is because -- because the court has continuously upheld the right of Congress to impose certain standards on the District. It has upheld the right of the District to participate in American life, even though it's not a state.

And frankly, the bottom line is, no person should be denied the right to vote in this society. And this bill will give the members of the District a right to vote for a people's representative in the House of Representatives, as I think is proper.

Now, admittedly, we've put the Utah seat in this bill. There's a good reason for that. You need to have uneven numbers. It will put us to 437. When the last census occurred, Utah lost this seat, even though we had approximately 10,000 Mormon missionaries, all of whom were voters, overseas, and they didn't count them, and they didn't count some other people as well. And we lost by just a few votes -- or we lost by just a few people. So this will rectify an injustice that occurred at the last census, and I think it's more than the right thing to do.

And I'm very proud to stand here with Senator Lieberman, who did a masterful job of managing this bill, and with my friends, Eleanor Holmes Norton, who has carried this battle for so many years, and Mayor -- the mayor, who has -- he's been just a -- just a stalwart from the beginning on this. And they both have -- Mayor Fenty has just been right there with us. And I want to praise him as well for the work that he's done.

But I'm very happy to see this resolved, and I hope that it will turn out all right in the end.

SEN. LIEBERMAN: I just want to say a word before Eleanor speaks. Eleanor really has been spearheading this effort for a long time. I'm about to say something where my memory may be blurring, and I may actually -- this may not actually have happened, but I believe that when Eleanor and I were at Yale Law School together, at one point she turned to me and said, "Joe, someday you and I are going to give the District of Columbia voting representation in Congress." (Laughter.)

Eleanor Holmes Norton.

DEL. NORTON: I love that apocryphal story. (Laughter.)

Well, it's impossible to say exactly how I feel about this vote today. In a real sense, it's like winning the Senate is like winning the lottery. This is not the 51-percent House. Everyone needs to understand what Joe and Orrin had to do to bring us to this point. Whoever set up the Senate to stop the House has often been successful. But they could not stop Joe Lieberman, they could not stop Orrin Hatch, and they could not stop the magnificent majority leader.

Orrin has spoken as if he had nothing to do with this. The fact is that, although Orrin seldom speaks about Utah, it is true that Utah benefits from this bill. It is classically bipartisan. But the fact is that what has amazed me is that, throughout this debate, in two committees in the Senate, in the 110th Congress, Orrin spoke elegantly to the merits of the principled issue. And over and over again he's done that, and has written an extraordinary Law Review article on why he thinks the bill is constitutional.

Joe has carried this burden through many iterations. This is only the latest way we have tried to get the vote. And the previous ways I've tried to get it, Joe was the leader over here -- he even got the statehood bill out of committee one year. So it's impossible to say how much I owe a friend who has been a friend in need no matter how we chose to get -- to get the bill.

For myself, I need to say that, throughout my -- it's now, I guess, 18 years completed -- years in Congress, I have done nothing but stand in the shoes of the people of the District of Columbia. But I want you to know that there were other shoes I felt I was standing in when I was on the Senate floor just now. We should not somehow take credit for this bill as if we thought up the idea, we District residents, we members of Congress, that the District should have a vote. The first residents of the District, when the land formally transferred to the Congress, gathered outside the White House to say, now, see, they meant you, now, to take up the cudgels. That's the ball that got dropped and got picked up in the Senate today by Joe, by Orrin, and -- yes -- by 61 democrats.

I also feel I stand in the shoes of residents of this city who have lived without the vote and died without the vote. Among them is my great-grandfather, Richard Holmes, who walked off of a slave plantation in the 1840s, walked to the District of Columbia, and that's how our family got to this city. That means that everybody on the Holmes side who's continued to live in the District has been, all of that time, without even this minimal most representative of rights.

So this is, for me, a historic occasion, precisely because there were so many who have so much to make this happen and cannot be here today.

I salute them. I salute the people of the District of Columbia. I salute the two organizations that have been most helpful to us, our own indigenous D.C. Vote and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.

And I thank all of you. I thank the members of the Senate for bringing us forward in a historic way that I think they will be remembered for as much as we will be.

Thank you, Joe.

SEN. LIEBERMAN: Hear, hear. Thank you.

I'd say very quickly in introducing Mayor Fenty that from the day he became mayor of this great city he has made securing the vote for the District a top and personal priority, and I can't thank him enough for that.

MAYOR FENTY: Thank you very much, Senator.

SEN. LIEBERMAN: It made a difference.

MAYOR FENTY: Thank you.

One step further. We are one step further to a voting member in the House of Representatives, one step further to full voting rights for District residents, one step further towards District residents having the same constitutional representation that every other American citizen has.

Senator Lieberman, Senator Hatch, Congresswoman Norton, and to Senator Reid and Tom Davis and so many others, on behalf of the 600,000 residents of the District of Columbia, thank you. Thank you for your efforts on getting the cloture vote on Tuesday and getting this passed by the full Senate today.

Although we are moving swiftly in this Senate, it does deserve repeating that just a couple years ago people thought we would never get to this day alone. I remember working with D.C. Vote and Ilir Zherka and Eugene Kinlow and the whole team, and people just constantly asked would we ever be able to get this through the Senate.

Knowing that we still have a House vote coming up, knowing that there's still a conference, we're not taking anything for granted. But sometimes momentum is realized in just how far we've come and how many obstacles have already been overturned to get to the point you're at. And I think that this day represents not only these two senators and so many others doing everything possible they can to get D.C. the franchise, but represents great momentum on our fight for full voting rights.

So thank you all again.

SEN. LIEBERMAN: Thank you, Mayor.

And I want to join Eleanor and the mayor and Orrin in thanking the advocacy groups who have fought so hard and helped us so much. This is voting rights legislation. It's civil rights legislation. It's the right thing to do.

Glad to take some --

Q Mayor Fenty? Mayor Fenty, what about the gun provision, of this kind of --

MAYOR FENTY: I'm going to let the senators speak first about amendments that were put on and where we go from here. I'll be glad to comment after them, but I think they deserve the first crack at it.

SEN. LIEBERMAN: Thanks. Well, this was a case where Orrin and I disagreed, on the -- on the gun control amendment. I consider it to be an unnatural appendage to this wonderful piece of voting rights legislation. But you know, let's celebrate this great victory today. And when we get to conference, we will, in the best traditions of Congress, reason together.

Orrin.

Q But Senator Lieberman, people be concerned -- I know the conference -- (off mike) -- privacy. I mean, residents say, well, we weren't happy -- (off mike) -- that this gun bill attached to the voting rights bill, people are going to say, well, in the back room, something may go down that we don't like. How do you -- what do you tell the citizens who are concerned about that?

SEN. LIEBERMAN: Well, I'd just say, in the end, it comes back to the Senate and the House. And that's the final say, and it'll all be out in the open, and it'll need the votes to pass.

Orrin, you want to add anything?

SEN. HATCH: No.

Q Senator Lieberman, do you expect that it will be stripped out in the conference?

Q He was talking --

SEN. HATCH: Well, we'll have to see what happens here. Personally, I -- personally, you know, the gun amendment passed rather strongly, and I think there's a lot of feeling about it both ways. Personally, I feel like we should not interfere with the right to keep and bear arms, and I feel like this town will be better off if we -- if we do.

But this has got to go to conference. This has to be resolved in conference. And Joe will lead the conference from our side, and there will be a lot of people who will try to resolve this in an appropriate manner.

Q Would you say the gun piece is a deal-maker or just a distraction, or is it something you -- (off mike) -- about?

SEN. HATCH: Let's have Eleanor.

DEL. NORTON: Yeah, you know, we're not going to devote more of this press conference to a part of the bill that is of no significance as far as we're concerned. We really are not. We're not going to --

Q (Off mike.)

DEL. NORTON: We are not going to let -- there are other things in this bill as well. You haven't looked closely. (Chuckles.) We're not going to let this great victory be spoiled by questions about something that none of us would tell you even if we knew.

The one thing I do want to say, this is -- that this is not like the back rooms you know. In those back rooms will be those who crafted this bill. And that's all I'm going to say about it. And I think the more we make a victory into a press conference about guns the more you mislead the people of the District of Columbia about what has been accomplished in the Senate today.

Q Senator Lieberman, do you risk -- this passed by 61 votes. Do you risk -- if it comes back without the Ensign amendment, do you risk any of those votes?

SEN. LIEBERMAN: You know, we don't know. And I want to join with -- I certainly hope not, because I think people have voted for a principle here, which is voting rights for the District of Columbia.

Anybody got a non-gun-amendment question? (Laughs.)

Q Senator Lieberman?

SEN. LIEBERMAN: Yes.

Q The City Council -- the District council has expressed concern about the -- for closing the door for the U.S. Supreme Court to read into the law after its passage the opportunity for representation in the Senate. Senator Collins passed a Senate amendment to prevent that. What's your take? I mean, closing one door to open another door?

SEN. LIEBERMAN: Yeah, well, I think that this bill is constitutional. I defer with great respect to my colleague from Utah, who is one of the authorities in the country really on the constitutionality of exactly what we have done here today. And I'll leave the final word to the Supreme Court.

Maybe we've done it. I can't thank everybody enough for this moment. It's a moment of joy and a moment of progress.

It's not over. We've still got the House and then the conference committee. But we are on our way -- finally -- to justice for the citizens of the District of Columbia.

Thank you very much.


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