Skip to content

The fight to drink until dawn during the inauguration weekend has quickly morphed into a debate over whether Congress should get involved in the city’s politics.

It all started Tuesday, when Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Bob Bennett (R-Utah) sent a letter to Washington, D.C., officials, urging the city to reverse its plan to allow bars and restaurants to serve alcohol until 5 a.m. from Jan. 17 to Jan. 20.

Their concerns mirrored those of police officers — mainly, that the extra hours of drinking could stretch the city’s resources and overwhelm law enforcement agencies.

By Wednesday morning, some D.C. bloggers were criticizing the Senators’ interference in what they saw as a D.C. issue. And on Capitol Hill, bar owners — even those who don’t plan to take advantage of the extra hours — agreed.

“We don’t get involved in their affairs; they shouldn’t get involved in ours,” said Capitol Lounge owner Adam Manson, who will close his bar at the usual weekend time of 3 a.m. “State Senators shouldn’t dictate what happens in D.C.”

But Howard Gantman, Feinstein’s staff director, said the decision will affect the inauguration, which falls under Feinstein’s responsibility as chairwoman of the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies. Bennett is also a member of the committee.

“All law enforcement resources and emergency response resources will need to be dedicated toward ensuring this event goes smoothly,” he said. “Any diversion of these resources to other purposes could potentially cause problems.”

He pointed to an array of possible side effects of a 5 a.m. last call that “could seriously impact people getting to the inauguration,” such as incidents at still-open bars and drunken drivers on the road at 5 or 6 a.m.

The Capitol Police, however, aren’t worried. Chief Phillip Morse said Wednesday that the extension won’t affect his force during the inauguration ceremony.

“I don’t want to sound like it doesn’t concern me. Drunk drivers concern me,” he said. But he added that he wasn’t aware of any bars on the Hill that would pose problems.

Several bars on the Hill don’t plan to take advantage of the extended last call.

Like Capitol Lounge, SOVA might close at its normal time. Frank Hankins, owner of the bar on the H Street corridor, said he’s not sure the profit will outweigh the operating costs.

“Can you justify staying open just to serve maybe 20 people or 25 more people? That’s what it comes down to,” he said.

On the Senate side, Union Pub — located around the corner from the Hart Senate Office Building — might stay open late, depending on the crowd.

Manager Lillian Darby said the pub will make the decision each evening contingent on whether “people are actually here drinking and spending money and not retarded drunk.”

But even she said she wouldn’t be upset if Congress or the D.C. Council reversed the decision to extend bar hours.

“I think it would be a good idea to do the night of the inauguration,” she said, “but I think doing it for the whole weekend is extremely excessive.”

It’s unclear whether Feinstein and Bennett’s letter will persuade D.C. officials to reverse the extension, which was passed via emergency legislation earlier this month.

Mayor Adrian Fenty and D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray have said they will work with Congress on the issue. But on Wednesday, Fenty told NewsChannel 8 that he would sign the bill into law. Gray also hinted in a statement Wednesday that his view on the issue hasn’t changed.

“While I respect the views of Senators Feinstein and Bennett,” he said, “having venues available for residents and visitors alike in which to spend time during the Inaugural celebrations for President-elect Barack Obama will provide entertainment options in organized settings for people.”

At-large Councilmember Phil Mendelson (D) said some of his colleagues might be having second thoughts, mostly because of the public’s reaction. He voted against extending bar hours.

“I think any honest look at the situation would have to admit that there’s a federal interest in the inauguration,” he said. “I happen to agree [with Feinstein and Bennett], although it’s probably more accurate to say they agree with me because I raised the issue first.”

Gantman wouldn’t comment on what steps — if any — Feinstein would take if the council refuses to reverse the legislation. Congress could pass a bill of its own nullifying the council’s actions, though that seems unlikely.

To D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), a letter is all that’s necessary and appropriate. Senators should be able to make suggestions, she said.

“I wish more Members of Congress would approach changes they want in precisely this way,” she said, “by sending a letter laying out their reasons for desiring the change rather than seeking to overturn a law of the District of Columbia.”

Recent Stories

Menendez rejects New Jersey Democrats’ calls to resign after indictment

Photos of the week ending September 22, 2023

Dressing down — Congressional Hits and Misses

Menendez indictment comes with Democrats playing 2024 defense

Sen. Bob Menendez and wife indicted on federal bribery charges

Hill worries mount about delays in arming Ukraine