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D.C. Budget Is Freed Up in Omnibus

D.C. officials rejoiced Wednesday after House and Senate leaders released an omnibus spending bill that removes long-standing provisions to limit the city’s spending on abortions, needle exchange programs and other local initiatives.

The riders — some of which have been attached to D.C.’s budget for more than a decade — highlight Congress’ control over the city’s affairs. Lawmakers are given the last say on the city’s budget and laws, and in the past, some have taken the opportunity to insert controversial restrictions in a budget mostly made up of local funds.

The fiscal 2010 omnibus, however, includes none of them, raising the city’s hopes that it will get a clean budget by the end of the year.

“Hallelujah,— said Ilir Zherka, executive director of the local nonprofit DC Vote. “It’s really quite incredible. I think this bill certainly will be the cleanest D.C. approps bill in at least two decades.—

D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) said she has been working to pass a rider-free budget since she entered Congress in 1991. She sees it as part of her fight to get full autonomy for D.C. — a fight that also includes getting full representation in Congress and eliminating Congress’ right to review the city’s budget and laws.

“These riders never should never have been in there in the first place,— she said. “They didn’t involve Congress or any money it has given the District of Columbia.—

Norton succeeded in removing a ban on funding needle exchange programs in the fiscal 2009 spending bill and fought this year to prevent Republicans from reinserting it. The programs, she argues, will help mitigate the spread of disease in the city, which is said to have the highest rate of AIDS and HIV in the nation.

The ban on publicly available abortions has been in place since 1994, and every attempt to remove it has failed. It’s one of the most controversial provisions in the D.C. budget and thus likely to energize anti-abortion Members who want to keep it in place.

“Once the Democrats took control, we went after the needle exchange rider first because so much harm — palpable harm — had come from that rider,— Norton said. “The Appropriations Committee I think waited until this session [to remove the abortion ban], and now we have a Democratic president who agrees in the constitutional right of choice.—

Republicans are already railing against the removal of the abortion ban. Thirty-five Senators — including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — sent a letter to Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) warning that they are prepared to “take full advantage of our rights under Senate rules to prevent massive taxpayer subsidies for abortions and abortion-related activities.—

As the omnibus now stands, D.C. could use local — but not federal — funds to provide abortions. For years, Congress has prohibited the city from using both local and federal funds. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) led the effort to oppose that provision and others in the omnibus in the wake of the Senate’s failure to attach an amendment to the health care reform bill that would have restricted federal funding of abortions.

“Both sides of the abortion debate have always drawn a line at forcing taxpayers to fund something they find morally offensive,— DeMint said in a statement. “We should be finding ways to decrease abortions, not sneaking through federal funding of abortion on demand.—

Senate Republicans may have a better chance of forcing the riders than House Members. Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.) offered an amendment while the bill was in conference to reinsert the abortion amendment, to no avail.

Though D.C. is allowed to use local funds only on abortions in the proposed omnibus, Tiahrt argued that the city puts both local and federal funds into one bank account. Taxpayers, he said, can’t be sure there’s a difference. His amendment failed along party lines.

“I have no legislative options right now,— he said in an interview. “The Democrats have a large majority.—

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