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Sablan strongly opposed new House rules

By Jayvee L. Vallejera

SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, Jan. 7, 2011)—CNMI Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan was sworn in yesterday for a second term in the U.S. House of Representatives and his first official act as a member of the 112th Congress came in the form of a challenge to the Republican majority to live up to its pledge of participative democracy by not taking away his right to vote in the committee of the whole.

Sablan also introduced two pet measures-the submerged lands bill and the Dr. Rita Hocog Inos Fellowship Act-that didn't make it during his first term in the 111th Congress.

Soon after their noontime swearing in, the House leadership under Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) moved to adopt new House rules that, among other changes, would strip away the right of representatives of U.S. territories and the District of Columbia from voting whenever the House acts as a committee of the whole.

Sablan and the delegates of the District of Columbia, Guam, American Samoa, U.S. Virgin Islands, and the resident commissioner of Puerto Rico, took turns pressing their case to be allowed to keep that right, as it is the only time they-as non-voting representatives-actually get to cast a vote.

District of Columbia Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton wanted to refer the issue to the Rules Committee; the Republican leadership objected.

"So we got up and registered our objection," Sablan said.

"We" included Norton, Guam's Madeleine Bordallo, American Samoa's Eni Faleomavaega, U.S. Virgin Islands' Donna Christensen, and Puerto Rico's resident commissioner Pedro Pierluisi. Remarkably, all of them are Democrats or identified with that party, like Sablan.

In a prepared statement he delivered on the floor, Sablan emphasized that the people of the Northern Mariana Islands are citizens of the United States, subject to the jurisdiction of the U.S. Constitution.

"Today, the majority rules exclude us from even symbolic representation in our government. The majority's pledge to America declared that the majority would fight those who whisper America's standing as the world leader of democracy is ending. But today, that same majority breaks its own pledge with rules that take away the vote from five million Americans in the territories and this is a sad way to begin this Congress," he said.

House Minority Whip Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) also spoke out against the new rules, pointing out that listening to people was a constant refrain during the last campaign season.

"We have almost 5 million people [in the territories] who are American citizens. How do we listen to them? We listen to them when their representatives put their green or red on the board," he said.

Despite the certain passage of the rules in yesterday's session, Hoyer said he will introduce today a standalone resolution to amend the rules and reinstate the delegates' vote in the committee of the whole.

"I'm going to be introducing an amendment to the rules that.will return this symbol of respect, this symbol of inclusion, this symbol of colleagueship, if you will, to our six representatives of American citizens," Hoyer said.

Sablan is also not conceding defeat just yet. "This is not over," he said.

He pointed out that the Republicans brought the issue to court in the early '90s and lost, with the Appellate Division ruling that it is not unconstitutional and that the delegates may have that privilege to vote in the committee of the whole.

"Norton was quoted in headlines today that voters from her district are Americans who pay taxes, so they can't use it against us, that we don't pay taxes," he added.

Under the previous House Rules, when the House acts as a committee of the whole, all representatives, including delegates, are considered committee members. That gives delegates the power to vote on amendments but not the final passage of the bill. This "symbolic" right to vote largely depends on who is running the House, with Democrats granting delegates that right in 1993 and 2007 and the Republicans taking it away each time they come to power.

Other priorities

Sablan pointed out, though, that the rules are not the be-all and end-all of his agenda. "My priorities are also outside the rules." That includes bringing as much federal assistance to the Northern Marianas as he can.

"This [rules change] is not something that will remove my attention from other issues. I won't take this personally," he said.

Sablan said he and the other delegates and their supporters will continue to push the voting issue but it is not something that is way in front for him now.

"There's other things here that's important. This doesn't deliver the bacon," he said.

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