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Time Short for D.C. Budget Autonomy

Local activists haven’t given up fighting for Congress to pass budget autonomy language for Washington, D.C., as part of any must-pass legislation between now and the end of the session.

Key allies on Capitol Hill, however, admit they are running out of options and time.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the D.C.-focused Oversight and Government Reform Committee and increasingly a District ally in Congress, said the nature of the continuing resolution Congress is expected to clear before the end of the fiscal year dims the prospects for passing D.C. budget autonomy legislation this year.

“The CR is not going to have anomalies, and even the president did not request that as an anomaly, so that’s going to keep anything from happening during the next six months,” Issa said Wednesday. “We are running out of days, and the CR not being a vehicle makes it very difficult for us to do anything.”

Stakeholders had hoped to make headway this year on a stand-alone bill that would unlink the District’s budget from the Congressional appropriations process. Local officials would be able to work under a new fiscal calendar and would not face threats of a citywide shutdown each time Congress faces a stalemate on a spending deal to fund the government.

But reality has set in.

Shepherding that kind of legislation through either chamber would not be possible without policy riders rolling back the District’s gun laws or restricting funding for abortions. Threats of such riders have derailed budget autonomy bills in House and Senate committees over the past year.

To accomplish the goal of a “clean” D.C. budget autonomy measure, champions of the cause had hoped to insert the legislation as its own rider in another bill, ideally legislation that must be passed by the end of the 112th Congress. Many had seen the inevitable short-term fiscal 2013 spending bill as the most hospitable legislative vehicle.

The text of the six-month CR that’s set for House passage this week, however, has very few changes to the funding levels and provisions already in place, per an agreement between House and Senate leadership. That leaves one less vehicle to carry D.C. budget autonomy to passage.

There are only a handful of legislative days left before Election Day, and the lame-duck session will be frantic as lawmakers rush to clear other measures. The docket includes an extension of the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts, a package of miscellaneous expired and expiring tax provisions, the fiscal 2013 defense authorization and legislation to avert the looming automatic defense and domestic spending cuts scheduled to start next year, known as sequestration.

Any of these bills could theoretically contain D.C. budget autonomy language, but Issa says it’s unlikely.

“Putting it with the tax extenders would be even harder,” he said.

Some local activists haven’t given up hope. A small contingent from DC Vote gathered outside the Longworth House Office Building on Wednesday afternoon, holding signs asking Congress to “Free D.C.’s Budget.”

DC Vote Public Affairs Director Eugene Kinlow acknowledged that the “options are limited,” but he said the organization is still exploring “creative options” to pass budget autonomy language before the end of the year.

Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn)., the retiring chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee who has championed D.C. issues during his career in Congress, is also “search[ing] for avenues to advance the city’s fiscal independence,” according to his spokeswoman, Leslie Phillips.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) cited the leadership of Lieberman and Issa as a reason to feel hopeful for the future of D.C. budget autonomy.

Though she disputed the idea that the window is narrowing in the 112th Congress, she emphasized that the momentum that has grown around the issue will only help the cause going into the 113th Congress.

“We have made progress we couldn’t have dreamed of a year ago,” Norton said, adding that House and Senate leaders have begun to support a whole host of issues essential for the District’s autonomy, such as language in appropriations bills that would allow the local government to spend its own funds in the event of a government shutdown.

“We have come a great distance,” she said.

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