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What’s in the Cards for D.C. Budget Autonomy?

D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) and Mayor Vincent Gray have in recent weeks expressed unbridled optimism that they can win passage of legislation in the 112th Congress that would grant budget autonomy to the District of Columbia.

But it’s difficult to reconcile their optimism with political reality — particularly the reality that most things on Capitol Hill come with a price.

The price for budget autonomy is likely to be a ban on funding for abortions in the District.

Whether supporters are willing to pay that price will go a long way toward deciding whether they get what they want.

Below are a handful of scenarios for how the budget autonomy debate could play out in Congress.

Scenario One

House Republican leadership agrees to bring a “clean” bill to the floor.

What Happens: The bill dies in the House or it’s amended in a way that makes it unpalatable to Democrats.

“Advocates and city managers are trying to create a perception of momentum for this legislation,” said Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee. “I think this is an illusion. They still have the problem on funding abortions.”

The NRLC is prepared to score votes on any legislation that would grant D.C. budget autonomy but not include, “at minimum,” language blocking local funding for abortions. According to Johnson, 230 House Republicans have perfect voting records with his organization; they wouldn’t risk blemishing their scores on a D.C. vote, he predicted.

Johnson also suggested the organization might demand that D.C. budget legislation include language that bans abortions after 20 weeks, the premise of bills sponsored by Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) that haven’t yet had hearings.

The Senate could move first and send the House a clean bill, but that’s not likely to happen. Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) has introduced such a bill that could probably win committee approval, but it would likely be blocked on the floor by anti-abortion-rights Senators who aren’t guaranteed the chance to vote on amendments to insert abortion restrictions.

Scenario Two

Norton and local officials are told by House GOP leaders they can’t have a D.C. budget autonomy bill without also banning local funding for abortions, and they reject it.

What Happens: The bill dies in the House, probably before it’s even marked up.

Leadership would likely defer to Norton on whether she wants to take a compromise on abortion, rather than force a floor vote without her consent. House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) did her this courtesy in November by not moving forward with his draft proposal that paired D.C. budget autonomy with restrictions on abortion funding.

The Senate could take up Lieberman’s D.C. budget autonomy bill separately but, again, lawmakers are likely to block the legislation on the floor if they don’t have the assurance that they’ll get to offer amendments.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) would probably not want to allow abortion amendments, in deference to his largely pro-abortion-rights caucus, or any amendments that could impose unwanted restrictions on the District. The more likely scenario is that he decides not to bring up the bill at all rather than risk having it become a vehicle for GOP message votes.

Scenario Three

Norton and local officials agree to a House budget autonomy bill that bans local funding for abortions.

What Happens: The bill passes the House with Republican support and Norton risks alienating local and Congressional allies.

Norton has friends among Democrats, particularly members of the Congressional Black Caucus and Pro-Choice Caucus, but in this case many of them would likely break ranks with her. Just like anti-abortion House Republicans don’t want to alienate their base if they vote for a bill without abortion restrictions, House Democrats who favor abortion rights run the risk of alienating their base if they vote for a bill with such provisions.

Abortion rights groups will also be exerting pressure. Fundraisers could pull financial backing in an election year. And Laura Meyers, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington, contends that any D.C. autonomy bill with a catch is no budget autonomy bill at all.

“Any deal that would include a rider to prohibit the district from spending its own locally raised tax dollars on abortions is a betrayal of women in D.C.,” Meyers said.

Community activists and constituents could also feel betrayed by the decision. DC Vote Executive Director Ilir Zherka has consistently described a compromise on abortion as “unacceptable.”

It all could be damaging for Norton, who can’t vote on the House floor and relies on her allies to help her gain political leverage.

After House passage, abortion rights supporters in the Senate could block the bill, Reid could choose not to take it up at all, or Norton could convince Democrats in the other body that three-quarters of a loaf is better than nothing.

Scenario Four

Norton, the mayor and others reach a deal with House leadership that could also pass muster in the Senate: move on a budget autonomy bill that bars D.C. tax dollars for abortions but does not bar local officials from using special funds, or raising private funds, to pay for low-income women’s abortions.

What Happens: It’s one suggestion that’s been floated that could appeal to both sides of the issue while accomplishing the main objective: give D.C. control of its own budget.

The city collects nontax revenues from licensing, fees and the like that can be earmarked for specific purposes. Though that money is still part of the District’s general budget that Congress approves, an agreement could be reached that would allow local officials to specify some of these funds to cover abortions.

According to the mayor’s office, there were 117 elective abortions provided from Aug. 1, 2010, to April 15, 2011, costing the city roughly $62,300.

The city could arrange for a private organization to accept donations to fund abortions, taking public money entirely out of the equation. That might make the deal acceptable to some lawmakers who favor abortion rights but oppose government funding.

There’s also the DC Abortion Fund, the volunteer-run nonprofit that seeks private donations to pay for abortions.

Not everyone would sanction this proposal, though. Meyers said the DC Abortion Fund is already “dramatically underfunded” and an unsustainable resource that’s no substitute for government funding.

Scenario Five

Lawmakers add a provision granting D.C. budget autonomy to another bill.

What Happens: Picture the clock running out on the 112th Congress during the lame-duck session, with lawmakers scrambling to clear must-pass legislation: a bill that funds the government (and, ironically, the District of Columbia) through the end of the fiscal year, legislation to extend middle-class tax cuts and proposals to offset sequestration of the defense budget.

Any of these last-minute measures could be candidates for a rider giving D.C. budget autonomy. At the end of a session, controversial and benign provisions alike often hitch rides onto other measures. Lawmakers may not like it, but few would sink a bill needed to keep the government afloat based on one provision alone.

Issa at one point indicated that this could be the most likely scenario for enacting D.C. budget autonomy in this Congress. Others have agreed, adding that making the proposal a rider itself would be a way to protect the bill from policy riders on abortion, guns, needle exchange programs and D.C. school vouchers.

There’s no certainty that a ban on local abortion funding wouldn’t accompany D.C. budget autonomy language tacked onto one of these end-of-session bills. Johnson points out that the NRLC threatened to score the underlying last-minute fiscal 2012 spending package last December unless it contained a ban on government-funded abortions in D.C.

Ultimately, the rider was included.

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