The president could be forced to side either with the District or lawmakers on Capitol Hill if D.C. residents support a charter referendum next spring that would allow their elected leaders to spend local funds without approval from Congress.
The 12-member D.C. Council unanimously signaled its support Tuesday for a bill that would authorize a referendum on changes to the D.C. Home Rule Charter, which it may do without intervention from Congress. Because city residents are likely to support the measure, known as D.C. budget autonomy, members of Congress would have a 35-day review period by means of a resolution from both chambers.
If Congress disapproves of the voters' action within that period, the resolution would reach the president's desk, prompting the leader of the free world to weigh in on self-determination efforts in the District.
"It remains to be seen whether our opponents in Congress and others will decide to challenge the District of Columbia with regards to this referendum," said Ilir Zherka, executive director of the advocacy group D.C. Vote. "Certainly if that occurs, we hope that the president will weigh in."
Any effort for greater self-determination in the District is destined to be rigorous. The federal enclave is home to more than 600,000 residents who pay federal and local taxes, yet do not have a vote in Congress. Although the Home Rule Act of 1973 established local authority through the city's mayor and council, Congress holds ultimate sway over the city's annual budget and laws.
City officials have quietly criticized President Obama for not doing enough to support self-determination efforts in the District, but he showed support for D.C. budget autonomy this year by urging Congress in his fiscal 2013 budget proposal to adopt the concept.
Of course, the dynamic would change if Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate, moves into the White House in January. While D.C. Vote has looked into his stance on home rule in the District, the organization has not found much.
"I'm unaware of where Gov. Romney stands on this," Mr. Zherka said.
The potential referendum opens a second avenue in efforts to secure fiscal freedoms for the District. Bills on Capitol Hill have stalled over the past two years because of legislative riders that would alter D.C. laws, despite wide support for budget autonomy from Democrats and Republicans alike.
"The goal is to get budget autonomy," council Chairman Phil Mendelson, a Democrat, said in an interview Tuesday after introducing the referendum bill. "So if what we're doing helps our friends on the Hill to get through their measure, we step aside."
Mr. Zherka said he does not believe members of Congress will be able to muster enough votes to disapprove of a referendum that supports D.C. budget autonomy. The resolution would be a stand-alone action, he said, which diminishes the chances for legislative mischief or compromises that go against the District's wishes.
Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District's nonvoting member of Congress, issued a carefully worded statement Tuesday that suggested a straight bill on Capitol Hill is a better route to budget autonomy than a locally driven referendum.
"After being informed of the proposed Charter amendment and investigating it, we briefed the mayor and council chairman on the legal and institutional issues and risks of a referendum that would allow the city to give itself budget autonomy," Mrs. Norton said in the statement. "In light of these issues and increasing Republican and Democratic support for budget autonomy, we will continue to work with our allies in the House and Senate to pass a budget autonomy bill."
Rep. Darrell E. Issa, California Republican, has proved to be a key ally in promoting budget autonomy for the District. But a bill in his House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform got a false start last year when it included a provision that permanently banned the use of local funds for abortions.
A similar bill in the Democrat-controlled Senate was withdrawn when Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican, attached amendments to it that would alter the District's gun laws, abortion rights and union protections. A spokeswoman for the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, which handles D.C. matters, said staff did not have a chance to review the District's proposal as of late Tuesday afternoon.
Mr. Mendelson went out of his way Tuesday to stress that the city is employing a "two-track strategy" to support friendly members of Congress in their legislative efforts. He also said the council's move appears to be legally sound, even if some officials are skeptical about their ability to intrude on congressional powers.
"We don't cut them out of the [D.C. budget] process," Mr. Mendelson said. "We would approve the budget like any other act — which goes to the Hill — and Congress has plenary authority over the District. They could pass a bill tomorrow that changes anything we do."
The Home Rule Act lists a number of subjects the city's lawmakers may not touch, but "the budget process is not one of them," he said from the council dais.
He said the District used the same mechanism to make the D.C. attorney general an elected office, beginning in 2014. The referendum went before Congress, but no one on Capitol Hill objected during the 35-day review period.
Mr. Zherka said the council's latest effort is about overcoming hurdles from a minority of federal lawmakers who have put up roadblocks to D.C. budget autonomy.
"I don't think we're going to win by waiting for something to happen," Mr. Zherka said. "I think the District understands that it has to start doing some things on its own."
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