House panel advances D.C. bill with funding cuts, abortion rules

A House committee approved a spending bill Wednesday that trims federal funding for the District and continues a controversial ban on locally funded abortions, as Republicans and Democrats continued their long-standing battle over how Congress should treat the city.

The House Appropriations Committee measure gives the District $636 million for fiscal 2014 — 6 percent less than the current level — to pay for the city’s court system, some school construction, a private-school voucher program and tuition assistance for D.C. students attending public colleges elsewhere.

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Federal funds make up a tiny portion of the city’s overall budget, but the annual funding bill nearly always sparks controversy, and this year’s measure is no exception. A report accompanying the legislation makes clear that House Republicans believe that the budget-autonomy measure D.C. voters approved in a referendum in April has no legal force.

The bill includes a ban on the city spending not only federal funds but also locally raised taxpayer money to provide abortions to low-income women. The prohibition has been in place nearly every year since 1996, as Republicans have insisted on it. District leaders have long opposed it, and Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) and several members of the D.C. Council were arrested in 2011 after protesting a deal cut by President Obama and GOP leaders to preserve the ban.

The language survived after the committee voted mostly along party lines to defeat an amendment by Democrats that would have lifted the ban.

“Every other state in the U.S. has the right to spend its local funds as it sees fit, but we have somehow decided to constrict funds in D.C.,” said Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.), one of the amendment’s sponsors.

Quigley later noted that he had recently gotten an apartment in the District. “I like spending time here, but I’m not sure I want to live here,” he said. “I prefer to live in a free state.”

Rep. JoséE. Serrano (D-N.Y.) linked the abortion rider to the language on budget autonomy to make a broader argument.

“What you’re doing here is not just on the issue of abortion,” Serrano said. “It’s a continuation of this behavior for years that says that we are the city council, we are the mayor, and they’re just some forgotten area of the nation that we happen to visit a couple of days a week and then we tell them how to spend their local funds.”

Rep. Ander Crenshaw (R-Fla.), the chairman of the subcommittee that authored the bill, said that the abortion language was the measure’s only restriction on locally raised funds and that the ban had been regularly approved for several years. The bill also continues existing bans on the use of federal — but not local — funds to pay for needle-exchange and medical-marijuana programs.

The bill cuts funding overall but takes an especially hefty bite out of the D.C. Tuition Assistance Grant Program, cutting funding in half compared with 2013’s level. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) has vowed to try to reverse the cut as the bill moves forward.

The Democratic-controlled Senate will write its own version of the D.C. spending bill that likely will not include the abortion ban or the report language regarding budget autonomy.

 
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