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Senators Cite Security, Oppose Inauguration Week Bar Hours

By David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Two U.S. senators involved in the planning of President-elect Barack Obama's inauguration objected yesterday to the emergency law approved by the D.C. Council that will allow bars and nightclubs to stay open all night, warning that the plan could strain law enforcement resources.

In a letter to city leaders, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairman of the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, and Sen. Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah), a committee member, said they are "deeply concerned" about the council's move last week to allow nightclubs, bars and restaurants to serve alcohol until 5 a.m. -- several hours longer than usual -- and remain open round-the-clock Jan. 17-21.

"The plan . . . could seriously strain law enforcement resources that need to be focused on the large crowds and security requirements of the Inaugural," the senators wrote. "There is great cause for celebration at this historic event. But we believe that the benefits of this emergency legislation, passed with little public notice, are far outweighed by its possible consequences."

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) objected to including nightclubs in the council's legislation, but he has said he will abide by the council's wishes and sign the law. However, Congress has the final say over District matters under the 1973 Home Rule Act that gave the city some self-governing authority.

Fenty and council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D), who voted in favor of the law, could not be reached for comment last evening.

Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), who supported the legislation, noted that Minneapolis allowed bars to serve alcohol for two extra hours, until 4 a.m., during the Republican National Convention.

"The prediction of dire consequences is a little over the top," she said. "We're the site of lots of demonstrations, celebrations. We know how to do this. I respect their view, but we should be the best judge of what happens locally."

District officials have said they expect between 1 million and 4 million people to come to Washington for Obama's inauguration Jan. 20, and city and federal officials are relying on an influx of as many as 4,000 police officers from across the country to help the D.C. police provide security.

The nightlife legislation was the idea of the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington, which proposed it to the council.

"What is clearly meant as a boon to local businesses may instead create tremendous problems for already overwhelmed law enforcement agencies," Feinstein said in a statement.

Also yesterday, D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles said he is reviewing the nightlife law after questions were raised about whether the regulations can overturn the "voluntary agreements" that many nightclubs, bars and restaurants have signed with neighborhood groups.

Those agreements set more restrictive rules on such issues as hours of operation and live music. Neighborhood activists are demanding that the voluntary agreements remain enforceable during inaugural week, saying they are akin to legally binding contracts.

"The voluntary agreement rules, in my opinion. They should stand," said Denis James, head of the Kalorama Citizens Association. "The only establishments that qualify for later hours are the ones that don't have voluntary agreements."

Nickles said he should have a decision this week.

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