D.C. Council Feeling Emboldened by Friendlier White House, Capitol Hill

By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 13, 2009

With a friend in the White House and Democratic majorities in Congress, several D.C. Council members say they are emboldened to push a progressive agenda that will put the city at the center of the national debate over the environment, same-sex marriage and gun control in the coming year.

In the aftermath of President Obama's inauguration, the council has begun a debate on taxing disposable shopping bags, continued the battle over gun control and expedited plans to try to authorize same-sex marriage.

By wading into such issues, the council raises a question about how far it will go in testing Congress's views on social policy in the nation's capital. Social and economic liberalism have deep roots in the District government, but some observers say the dynamics on the council this year set the stage for more activism.

Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) said he thinks that the District government feels like it's "coming out of a long tunnel" after eight years of a Republican administration and is ready to make a few waves.

"We have to be amongst the most progressive political jurisdictions in the United States, and if you look at our council, our right wing is the left wing anywhere else in the country," Graham said.

Two-thirds of the 13-member council has been elected in the past five years, and many of the newcomers are trying to make names for themselves. Memories of the city's federally appointed financial control board are fading. And the council is starting to feel more secure about picking battles with Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), making it harder for the administration to dissuade council members from taking up controversial issues.

Perhaps most importantly, council members said, the relatively progressive views being espoused on Capitol Hill and in the White House are easing the fear of federal intervention.

"You've got a restless, young council . . . and having President Obama there gives us more confidence," said D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D), commenting on last week's unanimous vote to recognize same-sex marriages performed elsewhere in the nation. "It's time for the council to express where we stand on issues."

Before the end of the year, council member David A. Catania (I-At Large) is expected to introduce a bill to allow same-sex marriage in the District.

Under the District's Home Rule, any bill approved by the council and mayor must survive a 30-day congressional review. Although it's rare for Congress to directly block District legislation, Capitol Hill lawmakers have found ways to stymie city policies.

In 1992, the District became one of the first U.S. cities to authorize needle-exchange programs for drug addicts. In 1998, Congress barred the city from spending money on the program, which was designed to combat the AIDS epidemic. The ban was lifted last year.

Also in 1992, the District created a domestic partner registry for same-sex couples, but Congress blocked funding for it until 2002.

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