Pablo Martinez Monsivais, Associated Press
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, right, talks to media Tuesday as Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., looks on.

WASHINGTON — Sen. Orrin Hatch's testimony before a Senate panel Tuesday included more than the expected encouragement to vote for a pending bill that creates a fourth congressional seat for Utah.

The Utah Republican's statement brings a respected GOP name to the sponsor list of a proposal that also grants a controversial vote to the District of Columbia. Supporters hope Hatch's endorsement can lure other Republican sponsors and show the White House — which has threatened to veto the bill — that this is a true bipartisan effort.

"You can't really get to the right of Orrin Hatch," said Ilir Zherka, executive director of DC Vote, a voting rights advocacy group. "Hatch's leadership on this bill is important."

Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., who gave an emotional statement before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Tuesday, said she expects every Democrat in the Senate to vote for the bill. The catch is that it might need 60 votes, or at least 10 Republicans, to prevent a Republican filibuster.

The bill — similar to one passed by the House last month — creates a fourth House seat for Utah, which would likely go to a Republican, to balance the vote that would go to the District of Columbia, which would likely go to a Democrat.

"This is a historic time for the citizens of the District of Columbia and a unique opportunity for Utah to receive a long overdue fourth congressional seat," Hatch said. "This legislation not only rectifies the district's undemocratic political status, but it gives my home state of Utah a long overdue fourth voting member in the House of Representatives."

Utah believes it unfairly missed out on a new congressional seat after the 2000 Census, but it lost a U.S. Supreme Court battle for it.

In a written statement submitted to the committee, Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. said losing the seat has cost the state by stretching the five-member delegation too thin in representing the interests of a growing population with expanding needs.

"In spite of the fact that we are large enough to merit a fourth member of Congress, the state has been spread thin, with only three members to represent the state's ever-growing population," Huntsman wrote. "That extra member would have been able to serve on other House committees and begin the process of gaining seniority and influence within the House."

Huntsman wrote that the state's population has grown since 2000 to 2.5 million people.

The Senate version would allow Utah to decide how the new district would look, and a new election would take place in 2008. The House bill included an at-large seat for Utah, where the new member would represent the whole state until after the 2010 Census and would have required a special election if it was signed into law before the 2008 election.

Hatch told the committee that removing the at-large option removes one constitutional concern over the bill. But the larger issue is granting the District of Columbia a vote when the Constitution clearly requires that only states get a vote in Congress. The district has not had a vote in Congress since 1801 and has tried unsuccessfully in the past to get one.

Hatch noted that Congress has opted to collect federal taxes from D.C. residents and allows the federal court to have jurisdiction over the district, even though the Constitution says these actions are allowed for "states."

"The question is whether the fact that the District is not a state trumps Congress' legislative authority," Hatch said. "Congressional action and judicial precedent throughout American history suggest that the answer is no."

But Jonathan R. Turley, a law professor at George Washington University who testified before the House Judiciary Committee in March — called the bill "the most premeditated unconstitutional act by Congress in decades."

Turley, who submitted 60 pages of testimony on the bill, said those who argue it is constitutional are interpreting the Constitution too liberally. He argues that Congress cannot grant the District the right to vote without amending the Constitution.


E-mail: suzanne@desnews.com