- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 10, 2009

Guns, needles and drugs - oh my!

All sides used the massive catchall spending bill now waiting for final approval in Congress to take care of long-standing business - with Amtrak passengers getting one giant step closer to being able to travel with firearms in their checked luggage just like airplane passengers - and with the District of Columbia breaking free of congressional restrictions on medical marijuana and taxpayer funding of abortions.

The $446.8 billion omnibus spending bill, which funds a large part of the federal government through Sept. 30, also rejects an effort to curb needle-exchange policies in the District meant to stem the spread of AIDS by intravenous drug use.

Coupled with the medical marijuana move the bill marks a victory for those who have been fighting to free the city from the dictates of Congress.

“The big and important cheer that you’ll hear from the District is that all the bans are gone now, and the last to go were among the most harmful,” said Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat.

The spending bill, which combines six annual appropriations measures, was approved by House and Senate negotiators Tuesday and will now go to both chambers for floor votes. It’s considered must-pass legislation and can’t be amended, making the Amtrak and D.C. changes almost certain to stand.

Travelers with firearms have long faced disparate treatment on trains and airplanes. Airline passengers can transport firearms in checked baggage, but Amtrak prohibits guns anywhere on its trains.

“This is an important victory for sportsmen and gun owners across the country, and it affirms congressional support of the Second Amendment,” said Sen. Roger Wicker, Mississippi Republican, whose earlier efforts to lift the Amtrak gun ban paved the way for the measure’s inclusion in the year-end spending bill.

“Airline passengers in our country are allowed to transport firearms in secure, checked baggage when declared during the check-in process,” Mr. Wicker said. “Law-abiding gun owners who choose to travel on America’s taxpayer-subsidized rail line should be given the same right.”

The measure has not stirred widespread opposition from gun-control advocates.

Peter Hamm, communications director for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said Congress is “moving in the right direction” with the Amtrak law, though the group has some minor misgivings.

“In and of itself it is not a bad thing,” Mr. Hamm said. “We think that this is no way to manage Amtrak security. … You don’t hire legislators to do your security.”

Under the new law, firearms on trains would be treated similarly to those stored on airplanes. Passengers would have to declare to Amtrak within 24 hours of departure that the unloaded firearm would be placed in luggage to be stored in the baggage car. The firearm must be carried in a locked, hard-sided container for which only the passenger has the combination or the key.

The House is expected to take up the spending bill this week, with Senate action soon to follow.

The measure is the first omnibus spending bill to be written entirely under Democratic control since 1994, and Democrats acted to undo many of the restrictions enacted over the years on how the District operates.

Gone is the federal ban on medical marijuana, imposed a decade ago to prevent the city from following through on a voter referendum that supported legalizing its use.

It’s unclear what the city’s next step is, and since Congress retains the ability to review all city statutes, it could still reject any final plans.

In the omnibus bill congressional negotiators also rejected a House move to reimpose part of a ban on needle-exchange programs for intravenous drug users. The program has been legal since 2007, but some House lawmakers had wanted to preclude programs from certain geographic areas, which Mrs. Norton said would have amounted to reimposing a “virtual ban.”

The omnibus bill does not have language that had been included in the past restricting the use of city taxpayers’ money to fund abortions.

The spending bill also includes a 2 percent pay raise for civilian federal employees and a mandate for agencies to review outsourced service contracts to determine whether government employees could better perform the jobs.

It would fund all of the agencies, with the exception of Defense, that still lack approval of appropriations for fiscal 2010. The agencies currently operate on a stopgap funding measure, known as continuing resolution, that expires Dec. 18.

Congress has approved five of the 12 annual appropriations bills for the current fiscal year.

The omnibus combines annual appropriations for Transportation and Housing and Urban Development; Commerce, Justice and science agencies; financial services; Labor, Health and Human Services and Education; military construction and Veterans Affairs; State and foreign operations.

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