Issa attaches abortion ban to D.C. budget autonomy bill

U.S. 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 the District 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.

Although city leaders expressed caution in their initial reactions Monday, the inclusion of the abortion language could doom the bill from the start. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) and other officials were furious when President Obama and congressional Republicans cut a deal on a spending bill in April that included a similar temporary prohibition.

Gray and several members of the D.C. Council were arrested at a Capitol Hill protest shortly after that spending bill was approved — and after it was revealed that during the negotiations, Obama had said to House Speaker John A. 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 approval, as it must do now. That process can take months and entangle the city’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 Oct. 1.

Issa spokesman Frederick Hill said that the bill is a “good-faith effort” to address the city’s desire for more autonomy.

“Its design reflects a desire to work with District leaders on legislation that can achieve passage in both the House and Senate,” Hill said.

Unpopular as it is with D.C. 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 onboard.

“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. “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.”

Gray spokeswoman Linda Wharton Boyd said Monday that the mayor was 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.”

D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D) said he was “reviewing” the bill and offered a bit of praise for its author: “Even though Rep. Issa and I do not always agree on everything, I appreciate that he clearly supports giving the District local budget autonomy.”

Ilir Zherka, head of the advocacy group DC Vote, was more emphatic.

Although 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 persuade them to change their minds. “He’s got to lead,” Zherka said.

Zherka also noted a 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 for the city to begin spending its money July 1, it would have to have its budget in place well before then.

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 slightly different 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.

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