This item has been updated.
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) has drafted a bill that would give the District more freedom to spend its own money — with a catch.
The chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee has included in his measure a provision that would prohibit D.C. from spending its own taxpayer funds to pay for abortions for low-income women except in cases of rape, incest or to save the life of the mother, according to a draft of the bill obtained by The Washington Post.
The inclusion of the abortion language could doom the bill from the start, as District officials — including Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) and Mayor Vincent Gray (D) — were furious when President Obama and congressional Republicans cut a deal on a spending bill in April that included a similar prohibition.
Gray and several members of the D.C. Council were arrested at a Capitol Hill protest shortly after the bill was approved -- and after it was revealed that during the negotiations, Obama said to House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio): “John, I will give you D.C. abortion.”.
Issa’s bill would allow the District to begin spending its own money after the council and mayor have approved the city’s budget, without having to wait for Congress to give its subsequent approval. (That process can take months and entangle D.C.’s finances with unrelated squabbles over the federal budget and government shutdown threats)
Issa’s bill would also alter the District’s budget calendar by having the city’s fiscal year begin July 1, rather than the current Oct. 1.
The initial reaction by city officials to Issa’s proposal was cautious.
“We received a proposal from Chairman Issa’s staff this morning, apparently at the same time they provided it to the media,” Norton said in a statement provided by her office.
“We appreciate that Chairman Issa has followed up on his statements at a May hearing that he wanted to give the District of Columbia more authority over its local budget and fiscal year and to avoid future shutdowns of the District government over federal spending fights. D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray, D.C. Council Chairman Kwame Brown and I will be speaking today to evaluate Chairman Issa’s proposal.”
Gray spokeswoman Linda Wharton-Boyd said the mayor was still evaluating the bill and that he “is aware that the pro-life movement placed a lot of pressure on Congressman Issa to continue the prohibition on using local dollars for abortion.”
Ilir Zherka, the head of the advocacy group DC Vote, was more emphatic.
Though his group is eager to achieve budget autonomy, Zherka said, “I don’t think you can begin this conversation with a bill that permanently restricts how the District can spend its own money.”And if Issa’s fellow Republicans push to keep the abortion ban, Zherka said Issa “should lead” by convincing them to change their minds.
Zherka also noted one potential problem with the budget autonomy portion of the bill. All D.C. civil laws must pass a congressional review period of 30 legislative days before they can take effect — in case Congress wants to alter them — and that includes the city’s budget. So in order for the city to begin spending its money July 1, it would have to have its budget in place well before that date.
Issa telegraphed his intention at a House hearing in May, when he surprised Norton and other attendees by saying he planned to work on a bill to give the city more financial freedom.
“I’m reasonably confident that, no, we cannot accept budget autonomy fully,” Issa said. “But I am going to be offering an alternative that … provides a mechanism for a separate vote, separate consideration of District funds.”
Norton said at the time that she was eager to work with Issa on his measure.
Unpopular as it is with District officials, the abortion ban has widespread support among congressional Republicans. It is unlikely that Issa would proceed with a bill that does not include the abortion language, so he could decide to scrap the measure altogether if Norton and the D.C. government are not on board.