With stalwart Capitol Hill friends of the city supporting the measure, both houses of Congress moved yesterday toward an expected first congressional veto of a D.C. City Council bill since limited home rule was enacted five years ago.
The disputed bill would prohibit the further establishment or expansion of embassy offices -- called chanceries -- in two areas of Northwest Washington where many of them already are clustered: the historic Embassy Row northwest of Dupont Circle, and along 16th Street above Scott Circle.
Acting at the request of the State Department and with newly announced support from the White House, the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee approved a resolution sending to the Senate floor a resolution to overturn the council action. A House District subcommittee approved an identical measure.
With Congress rushing toward a Christmas holiday adjournment, a vote by the full Senate could come as early as today. Action by the full House is expected to follow in the next couple of days.
Residents of the affluent Embassy Row area prevailed on the council to pass the restrictive legislation Oct. 9, blocking actions taken earlier by two planning and zoning bodies to open the areas to more chanceries. They complained chiefly about parking and traffic problems.
The State Department responded by describing council action as interference with the conduct of foreign affairs, making it difficult for the United States to obtain suitable sites and concessions in foreign capitals.
Ambassador W. Beverly Carter, speaking for the department, told the House panel yesterday that "the White House is supportive of our position." He said the hostage situation at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran demonstrates the need for cooperation by foreign governments.
The Congressional challenge to the council's action is not being led by traditional critics of the District, but by some of its best friends.
Among them are Sen. Thomas F. Eageleton (D-Mo.), Sen. Charles McC. Mathias Jr. (R-Md.) and three House members who have pushed in the past to expand rather than restrain home rule powers, Reps. Fortney H. (Pete) Stark (D-Calif.), Stewart B. McKinney (R-Conn.) and Millicent Fenwick (R-N.J.).
Rep. McKinney, ranking GOP member of the House District Committee, predicted the resolution would pass both congressional chambers with near-unanimous votes.
And, voicing strong regret as a long-time home rule advocate, McKinney told District officials that the council's adoption of the restrictive bill dealt a severe blow to hopes for further lessening of congressional control over the city.
"It's dead, dead, dead, dead, dead, dead, dead, dead," McKinney declared. In the House, he said, some 400 memebers are walking around telling each other, "I told you so -- these people citizens of the District should not have home rule."
District officials defended the council action yesterday, but made little impression of House District subcommittee members.
Rep. Fenwick, a member of both the District and Foreign Affairs committees, told D.C. Corporation Counsel Judith W. Rogers during one spirited exchange that the council action was "preposterous . . . nonsense . . . maddening . . . incredible . . . ridiculous."
Chanceries in low-density residential neighborhoods other than the two areas affected by the City Council bill already had been banned by Congress with its passage in 1964 -- prior to home rule -- of the Fulbright Act, named for then senator J. W. Fulbright (D-Ark.), who was chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.
Council member David A. Clarke (D-Ward 1) insisted in yesterday's testimony that the council, far from ignoring the needs of the federal government in passing its bill, actually "was propping up a standard that Congress gave us."
The actions of the two commissions amounted to "an end run around the act of Congress [the Fulbright Act] . . . and we did something about it."
Rep. Herbert E. Harris (D-Va.), who presided over most of yesterday's hearing of the DC. metropolitian affairs subcommittee, asked if Fulbright was personally affected by the proliferation of chanceries.
"Fulbright lived in the affected area, yes, and he is my constituent," Clarke replied.
With the session cut short after three hours by a House roll-call bell, Stark called for support for the veto resolution without hearing testimony from citizens in the audience. The subcommittee vote was unanimous.
The veto legislation has one influential opponent, Rep. Ronald V. Dellums (D-Calif.), chairman of the District Committee, according to staff members.
Although Dellums has not spoken out directly on the issue and could not be reached for comment, he was reported to be opposed to the precedent of having Congress vetoing city legislation. He sent an aide to yesterday's hearing to propose that the veto effort be dropped, and that Congress consider its own affirmative legislation on the chancery location issue early next year.
Stark and McKinney, normally Dellums allies, rejected this, with McKinney predicting that such legislation would start a jurisdictional dog-fight among House committees.
One subcommittee member said a majority of those serving on the District Committee are prepared to sign a letter today that would require Dellums to call an emergency committee meeting to clear the veto resolution for House floor action.