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D.C. mayor rivals unite on budget on Hill

- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 22, 2010

D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray put aside their sharp political rivalry for a day to defend the city's proposed fiscal 2011 budget before a congressional spending panel Wednesday.

The Democratic mayor offered detailed responses under friendly questioning from Rep. Jose Serrano, New York Democrat, who chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the city's federal budget, but was less forthcoming when challenged by panel Republicans on issues such as abortion, school vouchers and needle-exchange programs.

Asked how many abortions have been funded with tax dollars since the Democratic Congress lifted restrictions last year, Mr. Fenty said he couldn't answer. When asked whether he would use D.C. tax dollars to fund a voucher program, the mayor repeatedly cited the three-pronged approach - traditional public schools, charter schools and vouchers - he said he "inherited" from his mayoral predecessor, Anthony A. Williams

"We support the program as we inherited it," Mr. Fenty said, "with federal funds for all three sectors."

Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, Missouri Republican, asked Mr. Fenty if he is "comfortable" limiting the availability of vouchers in the face of a comment by D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee strongly endorsing the right of parents to select the school for their children. Mr. Fenty quietly said that he was.

The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, implemented under President George W. Bush, allots up to $7,500 a year in tuition to 1,700 D.C. children from low-income families. The program has proven hugely popular and has waiting lists of children.

But President Obama proposed last year to end the program for new students, and Congress obliged. Only students currently in the voucher program will continue to receive them.

Mr. Serrano told the D.C. officials he had a "special affection for the people of the District," but added, "I continue to support the president's approach to this issue."

Republican committee members were interested in vouchers, too, but they also looked to the mayor for details on such social-conservative priorities as curbing funding for abortion.

Mr. Serrano, who is credited with helping get the ban on government-funded needle exchanges lifted, asked Mr. Fenty if he had evidence the program is working.

The city picked up "380,000 dirty needles" off the streets, Mr. Fenty said.

A lengthy effort to give D.C. residents a vote in the House died this week after backers refused to accept an amendment that would have rolled back many of the city's restrictive gun-ownership laws. The voting rights issue was not raised directly, but Rep. John Culberson, Texas Republican, pressed Mr. Fenty over the city's gun policies.

"In Texas, we want you as law-abiding citizens to be able to protect yourself," Mr. Culberson said, adding D.C. residents should enjoy the same rights as Texans.

Mr. Fenty said he thinks that residents of the District "want very strict handgun laws."