‘Clean’ D.C. spending bill advances in Senate; silent on abortion issue

September 15, 2011

A Senate committee cleared the bill containing federal funds for the District on Thursday without adding any controversial policy “riders,” setting up a clash later this year with the House over a possible ban on government-funded abortions in the city.

The Senate appropriations measure, which also covers the Treasury Department and several other agencies, is silent on the abortion issue and — despite fears from some local activists — no Republicans attempted to add such language during panel consideration. It was unclear when the bill will reach the Senate floor.

The House Appropriations Committee approved its version of the bill in June, with a ban on the District using its own taxpayer funds to pay for abortions for low-income women and a prohibition on using federal money for needle-exchange programs. Democrats tried to amend the abortion provision out of the bill before it passed but were defeated in a party-line vote.

The measure has since become stuck in a jurisdictional dispute unrelated to the District and might not reach the House floor until later this year. Or it could end up being folded into a larger omnibus spending agreement between the House and Senate — with the two chambers and President Obama forced to negotiate on the abortion question.

Before Thursday’s hearing, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said the process had “yielded good news for D.C., and we have taken many steps, working with our allies to get a 100 percent clean bill.”

The Senate bill includes a total of $658 million in federal funds for the District, a 6 percent cut compared with the current level.(The House bill calls for a 10 percent cut.) Roughly 80 percent of that money pays for the city’s court system, with much of the remainder going toward school improvements and the D.C. Tuition Assistance Grant Program. Federal funds make up about 2 percent of the District’s operating budget.

The abortion issue has already sparked a rift between Obama and his adopted city. In April, Obama cut a deal with Republicans on a 2011 spending resolution that included the abortion ban, with Obama telling House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) at a White House meeting: “John, I will give you D.C. abortion.”

Soon after that agreement, D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) and several members of the D.C. Council were among 41 people arrested at a Capitol Hill protest over abortion and autonomy for the District.

The abortion prohibition was enshrined in law for more than a decade after Republicans took control of the House and Senate in 1994. Democrats removed it during their relatively brief stint controlling the White House and both chambers of Congress.

But Republicans note that Democratic leaders have voted for past appropriations bills that included the ban and that the past two Democratic presidents — Obama and Bill Clinton — have signed them.

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