- The Washington Times - Friday, July 21, 2000

A House committee Thursday forced a "conscience clause" into a District of Columbia Council measure that otherwise would have mandated that health plans pay for contraceptives.

In a nod to home rule, committee members decided to give the city's elected leaders a chance to draft the precise wording.

"What we're saying is the laws of the nation's capital should be consistent with the rest of the nation," said Rep. Ernest Istook, Oklahoma Republican and chairman of the subcommittee on the District, who introduced the amendment.

This and other so-called social riders dominated the Committee on Appropriations' debate on the city's $4.8 billion budget bill, which the panel ultimately approved.

The amendment says the measure on funding contraceptives cannot take effect without a "conscience clause" that "provides exceptions for religious beliefs and moral convictions," such as those held by the Catholic Church.

As approved last week by the D.C. Council, the measure would have required all health insurance plans that cover prescription drugs to pay for birth control pills and other contraceptive devices available by prescription.

Democratic opponents Thursday fought the committee amendment, arguing Congress should not tell the council what to legislate. Under the Constitution, however, Congress has final say on D.C. laws and budgets.

"I think it's obvious [the D.C. government is] going to have to correct this," said Rep. David R. Obey, Wisconsin Democrat and ranking member on the House Appropriations Committee.

"[But] I think we ought to give them the opportunity to correct their mistake," he said, calling the council's debate and approval a "sloppy and ill-advised action."

In a letter sent to House leaders Wednesday, Mayor Anthony A. Williams and D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp, at-large Democrat, said city officials were prepared to address an exemption clause. Thursday's vote almost ensures the city must add the clause to provide the health care option.

"It is clear that the city must revisit the language," Mr. Williams said Thursday. "The city's leadership can find common ground and pass legislation that meets the health needs of our citizens and is sensitive to religious liberties."

Mrs. Cropp expressed disappointment but said she is pleased the council will be able to write the language.

"Congress, by its act, said we could make that determination," Mrs. Cropp said, adding that the council would take up the issue again in the fall.

The District claimed a victory on another divisive social issue Thursday when the committee voted to allow the use of city funds for a needle-exchange program that proponents said would prevent the spread of AIDS among drug users.

Mr. Istook and other Republican opponents of the program who say it sanctions drug abuse lost that battle. But they hinted that the fight would continue to the House floor.

Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat who is the city's nonvoting congressional representative, expressed displeasure with the budget bill.

"On Metro funding and tuition assistance, on contraception insurance and charter schools and on a number of other issues especially redundant riders, out-of-date riders and social riders this is a bill that should not be signed by President Clinton," Mrs. Norton said.

She said she hopes discussion on the House floor will focus more on putting funds back into the budget instead of the social riders.

"There were some needless fights picked here today," Mrs. Norton said. "[The D.C. government] sent a balanced budget with cuts in it it's the kind of budget that people would say, 'D.C., finally you've got your act together.' "

But the fiscal 2001 spending plan was praised by both Democrats and Republicans. It includes $414 million in federal money for the city about $30 million less than what the city's elected leaders wanted and the Senate proposed.

The House bill provides $7 million in federal funds for the New York Avenue Metro stop $18 million short of what the city said it needs. The D.C. tuition-assistance program also received $3 million less than last year's $17 million.

The bill goes to the full House, where a vote is expected before a recess begins July 28.

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