Spending bill spares D.C. needle exchange, Chesapeake cleanup plan

April 12, 2011

The House and Senate released final details Tuesday of the massive spending bill agreed to by President Obama and congressional negotiators, and the measure spares the Washington region from many of the spending cuts and controversial policy changes that were included in the version passed by the GOP-led House in February.

The measure includes a prohibition on the District using its own money to fund abortions for low-income women — a ban that helped spark a protest Monday, which led to the arrest of Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) and several D.C. Council members.

But in something of a surprise, the bill does not include a ban on D.C. needle-exchange programs. Like the abortion ban, the needle-exchange prohibition had been sought by Republicans and had been included in the original House bill but was opposed by Democrats.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) had a mixed reaction to the news that the needle-exchange ban was not included.

“I appreciate our side did not give the worst of the riders to the Republicans, but the handwriting is on the wall,” she said. “Democrats will have to do much better than they did this time to preserve the District’s home rule.”

The measure also does not contain language from the original House bill that would have blocked the Environmental Protection Agency from implementing its cleanup plan for the Chesapeake Bay. The EPA proposal, negotiated with six states and the District, was opposed by many Republicans — including Rep. Bob Goodlatte (Va.), who sponsored the amendment to block it — but backed by most Democrats.

Goodlatte said he was disappointed that “many of the riders to rein in the EPA where it is exceeding its authority were not included in the final draft.”

The measure fully funds the federal government’s $150 million share of Metro’s capital budget, which will be matched by $50 million apiece from the District, Maryland and Virginia. The House bill had zeroed out the federal payment, prompting an outcry from the local delegation.

“Metro was really under the gun, and I was absolutely relieved that the continuing resolution included $150 million for improvements in safety and operational reliability,” said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), calling the House’s original proposal “draconian and short-sighted.”

The bill also includes $300 million to help Maryland and Virginia cope with the Base Realignment and Closure process. Half the money will go to road and transit improvements around the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, and half will go toward improving Route 1 heading into Fort Belvoir in Northern Virginia.

Both facilities are slated to grow significantly, and securing the funds has been a longtime priority for Democratic Reps. James P. Moran (Va.) and Chris Van Hollen (Md.), as well as area senators.

The bill cuts a little more than $50 million from federal payments to the District — almost $30 million less than was cut by the original House bill — and some of those reductions come in areas in which the city and/or Obama said they didn’t want the money.

The measure reduces funding for D.C. courts by $17 million — compared with $25.5 million in the House bill — and cuts $10 million from the budget of DC Water.

The new bill includes $77 million for District schools — $17 million more than the House bill provided — with $42 million devoted to traditional public schools, $20 million for charter schools and $15.5 million for the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program.

The new measure also carries separate legislation, written by House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and passed by his chamber, authorizing the controversial private school voucher program for five more years.

Meanwhile, Gray, other city officials and activists, including DC Vote representatives, used the Planned Parenthood office at 16th Street NW as a backdrop Tuesday to express anger at the agreement on the abortion funding ban. Gray said the city was used as a “guinea pig” for ideological views.

Although Gray appeared to be buoyed by Monday’s arrests, he tempered his excitement with disappointment that he has not heard from Obama, Boehner or Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.).

“It’s absolutely unseemly that the city was thrown under the bus,” he said.

White House press secretary Jay Carney said Tuesday that Obama opposes the D.C. abortion ban but that “tough choices were made, and that was one of them.”

Staff writers Mike DeBonis and Nikita Stewart contributed to this report.

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