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Budget autonomy for D.C. still on the table

Issa regroups after city leaders balk at abortion-funds ban

- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 17, 2011

A Republican House leader pledged Thursday to press ahead on crafting a bill that gives the District more control of its budget process, even after city leaders rejected his initial proposal because it included a ban on funding elective abortions.

Rep. Darrell E. Issa, California Republican, said hearings on a new version of a bill could occur as early as next month.

"I will keep the light on this issue until we have a law," Mr. Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said at the start of a markup session.

Mr. Issa made the promise one day after D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray and D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown said they could not support the proposal Mr. Issa released Monday because the conditions were "too hard to swallow."

The ground-breaking proposal would have allowed the District to start its fiscal year on July 1 and spend its money without being tethered to the federal appropriation process, which can get mired in political wrangling. Yet "Hyde language" in the bill that put a permanent ban on using local funds for elective abortions could not be ignored, they said, referring to legislation banning federal funding of abortion championed by the now-deceased Rep. Henry Hyde, Illinois Republican.

City leaders recognized that Mr. Issa likely put in the abortion rider to appease his fellow Republicans.

Mr. Issa said there could have been even more riders on the bill. To avoid any surprises, he asked members of both parties to present any riders to his staff ahead of serious debate to "make sure they are not overly onerous to the District."

"If they've got something, let's know about it," he said. "I don't want to have some hypothetical that comes up on the House floor."

The District, he said, has had "reasonable autonomy for a long time in most areas — the clear exception has been in preparing well in advance to spend its own money."

Mr. Issa is particularly concerned that the District's education spending is tied to the federal appropriations schedule, forcing it to use an Oct. 1-Sept. 30 fiscal year that cuts into the school year.

Also Thursday, about 30 clergy members and advocates of D.C. self-rule sent a letter to President Obama urging him to resist the Hyde language and later held a candlelight vigil outside the White House.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, Maryland Democrat and ranking member of the committee, opposed Mr. Issa's initial bill, but said he is "ready, willing and able" to work with the chairman and D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton on a proposal that is amenable to city residents.

The District has faced multiple threats of a government shutdown since the spring, because of Congress' repeated use of stopgap spending measures, Mr. Cummings noted.

"No locality should be forced to operate under such uncertainty, which is why it's so critical for the District to be able to enact its own budget," he said.

Mrs. Norton, the District's non-voting member of Congress, lauded Mr. Issa for taking "a mighty leap forward" toward the budget autonomy city leaders have sought since they achieved home rule in 1973.

"We were quite aware that [the abortion clause] was not an idea that the chairman authored," she said.

D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat, opposed the initial proposal from the outset, but is pleased by Mr. Issa's renewed commitment.

"I think we have to keep our own integrity and principles," she said."This has been a really long haul, and we're in it for the long haul."

Ms. Cheh circulated on online petition last year to oppose a similarly mixed offer from Congress, which would have given the District voting rights in the House while stripping away its gun laws.

"We want to move past the idea that we are a plaything for Congress," she said. "That should stop."

Rep. Trey Gowdy, South Carolina Republican and chairman of a subcommittee on D.C. affairs, has garnered praise for maintaining a hands-off approach to the District while maintaining his conservative values.

Gowdy spokesman Josh Dix said Thursday that Mr. Issa's proposal has been pulled and that the chairman and Mr. Cummings are working out new language, so "Congressman Gowdy would rather wait and comment on the final version."

Mr. Brown said Mr. Issa indicated his continuing commitment to D.C. budget autonomy in a constructive phone call on Wednesday night.

"It shows the kind of man he's been on this particular issue," Mr. Brown said. "He could have easily just stopped."

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