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Lieberman defends D.C. on city affairs

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Sen. Joe Lieberman on Wednesday publicly defended the District's right to govern its local affairs, noting "no one in Congress would dare to impose laws on any of the states."

Mr. Lieberman, Connecticut independent, made the remark after Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican, unveiled a slate of amendments Tuesday that would restrict abortions in the District and relax city gun laws as part of legislation that would allow the city to spend its local dollars without prior assent from Congress.

The amendments prompted an outcry from city leaders — Mayor Vincent C. Gray called it an "insult to the people of our city" — that compelled Mr. Lieberman to withdraw the bill from his Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs.

But that didn't keep the former vice-presidential candidate from airing his thoughts on Congress' tenuous relationship with the District. While Mr. Paul had every right to introduce the amendments, federal lawmakers should take another look at their tendency to speak for the District, Mr. Lieberman said at the start of his committee's session Wednesday.

Mr. Lieberman said his committee had intended to mark up a bill that grants budget autonomy to the D.C. government, a concept that "has bipartisan support."

"And it ought to," he said, "because it would end, really, a relic. It's almost as if we continue to act as a colonial power over the District."

Congress is vested with legislative oversight of the quasifederal city. Federal lawmakers can object to local laws during a review period and must approve the city's budget each year.

But city leaders decry exclusive mandates from Capitol Hill, which tend to take the form of riders on broader legislation, as undue interference because the Home Rule Act of 1973 established a mayor and D.C. Council to govern the city.

House Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District's nonvoting member of Congress, asked Mr. Lieberman to withdraw the D.C. budget autonomy bill in light of Mr. Paul's amendments because "they would choose not to take the risk at this time," the Connecticut senator said Wednesday.

A committee spokeswoman, Leslie Phillips, said Mr. Lieberman will not give up on D.C. budget autonomy and "consult with its supporters to develop another strategy."

"He knows the road ahead will be difficult, but he also believes strongly that D.C., like any other city, should have the authority to implement its own budget without prior approval from Congress," she said.

Members of Congress who have proposed D.C.-related measures in recent months cite their inherent powers to exercise legislative authority over the District. While the Constitution does not mention specific states, it does note federal government oversight of the nation's capital.

While lawmakers say they would not get involved in mundane matters such as city traffic laws, they point to priorities such as the rights of unborn children as urgent topics that need to be addressed.

Mr. Paul's amendments would establish a permanent ban on locally funded abortions in the District; would allow D.C. residents to obtain concealed-weapon permits and would recognize concealed-carry permits issued to residents of other states; create an office to help residents purchase and register firearms; and make clear that membership in a union cannot be a precondition for employment in the District.

Last year, city leaders asked a House committee to withdraw a similar D.C. budget autonomy bill because it contained the permanent ban on locally funded abortions.

Its sponsor, Rep. Darrell E. Issa, California Republican, has said he is committed to fashioning a new bill.

Despite momentum for D.C. budget autonomy on Capitol Hill, city officials are chagrined by a series of Republican-led efforts to alter the city's approach to abortion.

A bill introduced by Rep. Trent Franks, Arizona Republican, would prohibit abortions in the District 20 weeks after fertilization in all cases, unless the pregnancy threatens the woman's life or a major bodily function. It has been vetted in a House subcommittee and attracted more than 200 co-sponsors.

Rep. Justin Amash, Michigan Republican, signaled on Facebook this month he is crafting a bill that prohibits minors from obtaining abortions in the District without parental consent, forbids non-doctors from performing abortions and provides protections for individuals or health care providers that refuse to perform abortions. The bill has not been formally introduced, however.

Mr. Lieberman noted the District is an independent capital city, or "some might say a city-state."

Congress, he said, should "reconcile" its use of oversight powers to pass laws on the District's behalf.

"We would rant and rave if anybody tried to do it for our states," he said. The ability to do so for the District, he added, "remains itself troublesome, but that is a power we have."

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