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Joe Lieberman Introduces D.C. Budget Autonomy Bill

Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) introduced legislation giving budget autonomy to the District of Columbia today.

The chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which has jurisdiction over D.C. affairs, dropped the bill just more than a week after Roll Call first reported such a measure was in the works.

The 11-page bill, which would allow D.C. to set its own fiscal year and control its own budget, is co-sponsored by the panel’s top Republican, Sen. Susan Collins (Maine), and Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), chairman of the subcommittee with D.C. oversight.

Currently, the District’s funds are tied up in the Congressional appropriations process, where each threat of a government shutdown due to disagreements over spending deals puts D.C. operations at risk of a citywide halt.

The bill would not completely remove the federal government from the equation, however. As with all D.C. Council-passed bills, Congress would have a window in which to review the budget, during which time it could vote on a “statement of disapproval” that would also have to be signed into law by the president.

This has only happened a few times in history.

“The people of the District of Columbia should not be held hostage to the gyrations of a divided Congress,” Lieberman said in a statement. “Our bill would give the District greater control over its own funds and end the fiscal uncertainty that comes from what have become routine protracted Congressional budget battles.

“This bill is long overdue and would appropriately advance the concept of an independent D.C.,” he added.

Supporters of expanded autonomy for the District say that passage of this bill would be a fitting legacy for Lieberman, who is retiring from the Senate at the end of this term. He has long been a champion of D.C., sponsoring legislation on multiple occasions to give the city representation in Congress.

Collins and Akaka also deserve praise, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said in a statement. “I am deeply appreciative to Senators Lieberman, Collins and Akaka, who have been longtime supporters of D.C. budget autonomy, for introducing the bill at this critical time.”

And true to expectations from D.C. autonomy activists such as DC Vote, the bill is free of riders that are typically included in D.C.-specific legislation to be more palatable to conservative voters.

In the past, provisions to make D.C.’s gun laws less restrictive have derailed legislative attempts to give D.C. more independence.

This round, a ban on local funding for abortions in the District appears to be the major sticking point. The National Right to Life Committee has pledged to oppose any legislation giving D.C. budget autonomy unless it includes language that restricts abortion funding.

Although House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) have indicated their support in principle, they both hinted that it could hinge on the inclusion of language limiting abortion spending.  

A real sense that anti-abortion activists inside and outside Congress could upset efforts to give D.C. budget control led Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the chairman of the D.C.-focused House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, to introduce a bill last November that banned local money for abortions.

At that time, Norton, Mayor Vincent Gray (D) and D.C. Council Chairman Kwame Brown (D) reluctantly said they could not support Issa’s proposal based on that language, and Issa promised to go back to the drawing board to work out a compromise.

Last week, Issa told Roll Call that he continued to meet with councilmembers to seek their input and that he was talking logistics with Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.), the chairwoman of the Appropriations subcommittee that currently oversees D.C.’s budget.

“I am confident that we’ll get there this Congress,” Issa said, but he has not yet indicated when a new bill might be introduced or whether he is still exploring whether D.C. budget autonomy language could be tacked on as an amendment to existing legislation.

Issa also has not said what many fear: that as far as the Republican-led House is concerned, there may not be enough support to pass such a bill without provisions restricting abortion.

In the meantime, local officials are praising the Senators for their legislation.

“Sens. Lieberman, Collins and Akaka have taken a bold step today by introducing a bill that provides the District of Columbia with the most basic and fundamental freedom of any government – the right to set its own budget,” Gray said in a statement.

“It’s encouraging to see that there is widespread support for budget autonomy in the District of Columbia,” Brown said in a separate statement. “I look forward to working with Congress, the mayor and my colleagues on the Council on a plan that will eliminate federal oversight of the District’s budget and give our city the freedom to decide how to spend our money.”

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