House panel approves D.C. funds, defeats effort to remove abortion ban

June 23, 2011

A House panel on Thursday approved a bill that would cut federal spending for the District by 10 percent, while rejecting an attempt to remove a ban on local government-funded abortions.

The spending measure, which the House Appropriations Committee approved along party lines, would reduce the federal government’s payment to the District by $62 million compared with 2011, with the D.C. courts, school construction and the D.C. Tuition Assistance Grant Program among those items targeted for cuts. Federal funds comprise roughly 2 percent of the city’s operating budget.

The bill also prohibits the D.C. government from using its own tax revenue to provide abortions for low-income women. A similar ban was included in a short-term spending deal agreed to by President Obama and House Republicans in April, angering local leaders and activists.

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) on Thursday tried to remove the abortion measure from the legislation, offering an amendment that would preserve a ban on federally funded abortions in the District but allow the city to use its own money for that purpose. Her amendment failed along party lines, 20-27.

“Local revenues should be spent and decided by local governments and local officials,” Lee said, later concluding an impassioned speech by saying of the District: “It’s not a colony, it’s the nation’s capital. . . . Its residents deserve to be treated fairly and with respect.”

Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.), the chairman of the subcommittee that authored the bill, pointed out that the ban had been enshrined in law for many years before it was lifted by a Democratic majority, and that numerous Democratic presidents and leaders — including Obama — had signed or voted for past bills that included the prohibition.

Emerson also said the abortion issue was so important to her fellow Republicans that she believed the entire bill, which also carries funds for the Treasury Department and other agencies, could fall if the ban was not included.

“If we don’t get the bill to the floor with the language prohibiting abortion, I’m afraid we may run into other challenges,” Emerson said.

Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) offered some advice for committee Republicans. “If you want to dictate what can’t be done with local dollars, frankly, you should run for the District council,” she said.

At one point the debate grew heated, as Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) rose to oppose the amendment.

“I might point out the irony that this committee voted not to allow people to spend their own money on having a horse inspected by the USDA. . . . and now these same people are standing up and saying, ‘Oh, but allow . . . the government of D.C. to use its own money to abort babies,’ ” Lummis said.

Lee snapped back: “Mr. Chairman, these are not horses. These are primarily women, and women of color.”

The spending bill includes the abortion-funding ban but did not prohibit the use of local funds for needle-exchange and medical-marijuana programs. It also was silent on the subject of the city’s same-sex marriage laws.

In part, those omissions represented the preference of Emerson to keep the measure relatively free from extraneous provisions. But they could still surface in amendments offered when the bill is debated by the full House, which is tentatively scheduled for next month.

Before Thursday’s hearing, several advocacy groups — the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, AIDS United, Human Rights Campaign, NARAL Pro-Choice America and DC Vote — wrote to the committee urging it to avoid adding policy riders to the bill.

“Should lawmakers continue to advance attacks on D.C.’s autonomy,” the groups wrote, “we will make certain that our members — in every district — know how their representatives are spending their time here in Washington: Meddling in the affairs of D.C. residents rather than focusing on the nation’s true, pressing business.”

Local activists are hopeful that Senate Democrats and Obama will oppose the abortion ban and any other riders that get added during the legislative process. DC Vote is planning a rally outside the White House Saturday to drive that point home.

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