Congressional conferees remained deadlocked yesterday on whether abortions in the District should be publicly financed, even with money raised by taxes imposed on city residents.
The House has approved a ban on this method of financing abortions, and its conferees held firm to this position yesterday. Agreement has been reached on all other items in the $1.3 billion money bill for fiscal 1980, including a federal payment of $238.2 million.
The conferees decided that the abortion question would be debated again independently by the full House, perhaps next week. Unless members reverse their vote of 217 to 200 recorded July 17, the city may have to begin the new fiscal year Oct. 1 without an approved budget.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate District appropriations subcommittee, said "there would be a revolution" in his home state if Congress attempted to place such a restriction on locally raised funds.
Leahy and Rep. Charles Wilson (D-Tex.), chairman of the House District appropriations subcommittee, attempted to persuade other House conferees to drop the abortion ban, but failed.
The idea of taking the question back to the House "in disagreement" was suggested by Rep. William H. Natcher (D-Ky.), who waid he feared that the House would reject the entire budget if the abortion ban were dropped by the conferees.
City Council Chairman Arrington Dixon, who sat through the two-hour meeting, decried the action, saying the question of funding abortions "should not hold up all citizens of the District."
Dixon reiterated the complaint that "Congress shouldn't be reviewing our budget in the first place. We need budget autonomy."
Rep. Louis Stokes (D-Ohio) called the abortion amendment "reprehensible and unconstitutional." He argued that if the sponsor, Rep. Robert K. Dornan (D-Calif.) had not expected the conferees to decide the matter for themselves, he would have "sought an amendment to instruct the conferees not to remove it."
"But he didn't," Stokes asserted. "We were given liberty to vote without concern."
Wilson agreed with Stokes, saying he found it "particularly noxious to tell D.C. it can't spend its own money on abortions.
But Rep. Eldon Rudd (R-Ariz.) answered Stokes that "it's not reprehensive to some people, who identify (District funds) as federal tax money."
Leahy said, "That's not so; it affects money the city collects as sales tax on food and hotel rooms, real estate and corporations."
Stokes told Rudd that not only would there be a revolution in Vermont, as Leahy suggested, but "there would be a revolution in Arizona, too" if that state were told by Congress how to spend local tax money.
Leahy acknowledged that under existing law, Congress also has the right to "tell the city not to use any tax money for blood transfusions, which are considered as immoral by some churches as abortion is to mine." (Leahy is a Catholic.)
Leahy added that he conducted an informal poll of his Senate colleagues and determined that he should not give in and permit the abortion amendment to become part of the budget bill.
Wit that, the issue was joined. Rep. Gunn McKay (D-Utah) moved to take the question back to the House floor, and he was supported by Natcher, Rudd, Carl D. Pursell (R-Mich.), Bill Chappell Jr. (D-Fla.) and Jamie L. Whitten (D-Miss.). Wilson and Stokes objected.
Dornan said last night that "I'll make the fight" again on the House floor because "this involves life, human life." He said that Leahy is "disingenuous" when he argues that Dornan's amendment would prevent the city from spending its own tax money. "It's comingling" of federal and local taxes, Dornan said. He added that Leahy "has made that same [comingling] argument five different times" when it suited his purpose.
The vote came at the end of an otherwise harmonious session in which differences in the House and Senate versions of the District's budgets were ironed out easily and with little discussion.
The compromise budget includes the proposed federal payment of $238.2 million, which Dixon said "is not consistent with services provided" to the federal government. "We need a fixed formula" for determining how much the city should get to compensate for the federal presence in the District, Dixon said.
Leahy said the city "always wants $315 million, but nobody in the administration ever considered getting that."
Leahy said the overall operating budget of $1,384,102,900 provides "that all major programs are funded adequately."
Wilson agreed, saying that "all essential and innovative programs, such as those in housing, are well budgeted."
Wilson and Leahy said they anticipate that, unlike in previous years, the city should not have to come back to Congress for supplemental funds. "It would require an absolute emergency for our committee to consider" a supplemental appropriation, Leahy said.
The respective chairmen also criticized high salaries and the large number of workers in the District government, saying they hoped the restrictions in the new budget would, in Wilson's words, "exert pressure to reduce the size of the workforce. It takes 148 workers in D.C. to do what 100 do in the rest of the country," Wilson said.
The budget does not allow for the 7 percent pay raise in store for federal workers, but the conferees said they knew of no law requiring city workers to match federal employes dollar-for-dollar.
"Most state and local government workers would be delighted to have what D.C. gets," Leahy said. "Don't shed too many tears for them."
The conferees sided with the Senate in refusing to authorize a new Office of Business and Economic Development. Dixon called the development office vital to the city, however, and said it will be funded with money appropriated to another department.