With the District of Columbia poised to run out of money by the end of the month, Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton is blaming President Obama’s threat of a veto for the Senate’s unwillingness to take up a bill that would extricate the District’s budget from the federal shutdown showdown.
“The veto threat is what’s driving the votes here. All the Democrats have always supported us, but with the veto threat from the president, it makes it very difficult for the Senate and the House Democrats to move,” said Ms. Norton, the city’s nonvoting member of Congress.
The fight marks a major reversal for a city that is overwhelmingly Democratic and regularly tries to fend off Republican efforts from Congress to intervene in local affairs.
As a federal district under the control of Congress, the city is affected by the shutdown. Local officials have scraped together enough emergency money to keep services going for now, but will need some relief if the shutdown extends several more weeks.
Last week, the House, led by Republicans, took up a bill to let the District use local tax revenue to pay for services. That measure was first blocked by Democrats, despite Ms. Norton’s pleading, but a day later the chamber cleared the legislation on a voice vote and sent it to the Senate.
But there it is meeting with stiff opposition. Democratic leaders say that either the entire government must be reopened, or none of it can be.
With that demand, they are backed by President Obama, who has issued a veto threat for nearly all of the House’s piecemeal funding bills, including the D.C. budget measure.
“I’m trying my very best to convince them to make the distinction they have always made in the past and advocating for budget autonomy,” Ms. Norton said. “I’ve been speaking to Democrats more than Republicans, but I’m very grateful to Republicans for getting it through [the House].”
The D.C. issue appears to lack backing among Senate Republicans as well.
At one point last week, the House had cleared five bills — the D.C. legislation and four measures to restore money for the National Institutes of Health, veterans’ benefits, the national parks and the military reserves and National Guard.
Senate Republicans took to the chamber floor to try to force votes, but raised only the four spending bills. They did not ask for action on the D.C. bill. Asked about the move, Republican aides said they might revisit the issue.
The D.C. bill stands in contrast to a bill to guarantee full back pay for federal employees who are on furlough. Mr. Obama has vowed to sign that bill if it reaches his desk.
Although Ms. Norton has not spoken to the president directly about the D.C. bill, she has talked with White House officials at “pretty high levels.” She also has made her case to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, who has not brought the bill to the Senate floor for a vote.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, Missouri Democrat, said that she will not support a measure to keep D.C. running until House Speaker John A. Boehner allows a House vote on a full-funding bill.
“I don’t understand why he won’t let them vote,” she said Monday afternoon. “Then if it doesn’t pass, then we’ll go from there. But it is ridiculous that he’s not allowing the elected members of the House of Representatives to vote.”
Sen. Barbara Boxer, California Democrat, said the entire government needs to be reopened — not just pieces. When asked whether she supported a budget bill specific to the District, she responded, “We need to open the government, this is ridiculous.”
D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray, who is working with Ms. Norton, also has been in talks with Mr. Reid and the White House to allow Washington to continue functioning if the government shutdown lasts for weeks or months.
“We are in the process of determining exactly how far the contingency cash reserves will last. We have roughly two weeks of cash on hand,” said Pedro Ribeiro, a spokesman for Mr. Gray. “The mayor has reached out to Sen. Reid and the White House. We have been in contact on a staff level with both. He’s personally and directly involved.”
D.C. Council member Jack Evans, Ward 2 Democrat, said he is leaving the budget battle to Ms. Norton and Mr. Gray. He estimated that the city will run out of contingency funding in late October but could not provide a specific date.
“We set an example as a city of what Congress should aspire to, making decisions in the best interest of the country and our residents,” Mr. Evans said. “I would encourage Congress to come together and come up with a solution that doesn’t significantly harm the country.”
One way the city is setting an example of working together for the good of the citizens is paying to pick up trash in the city’s national parks normally maintained by the federal government. Mr. Evans supports the initiative by Mr. Gray with the caveat that the city is reimbursed for its expenses during the shutdown.
“I think it’s the right thing to do because the trash is starting to pile up in particular on a lot of the running routes. I’m a jogger, so I see it all the time,” he told The Washington Times. “But we expect to get our money back.”
Ms. Norton agreed that the maintenance should “earn some money” for the District and said Monday that she was “looking into it.”
Mr. Ribeiro said the mayor’s office is not asking for reimbursement for the trash collection in national parks because “it’s a public health issue we simply can’t ignore.”
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