Congress, writing a controversial page in the five-year history of home rule in the nation's capital, voted for the first time yesterday to overturn an action by the D.C. City Council.
By a voice vote that followed a sometimes emotional debate, the House last night followed the Senate in killing a council bill that would have restricted the location of foreign embassy offices in the city.
The earlier Senate action also came on a voice vote, but without any discussion or debate.
The congressional veto of the council bill was sought by the State Department, which mounted a strong lobbying effort on Capitol Hill climaxing with last night's House vote.
The State Department contended that the city's now-rejected restrictions on the location of chanceries, as embassy offices are called, was interference with its conduct of foreign policy. Its officials said they must provide foreign nations with suitable sites in Washington in return for U.S. concessions abroad.
Resolutions disapproving the council action were cosponsored by the chairman of the two congressional foreign relations committees, Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho) and Rep. Clement J. Zablocki (D-Wis.).
Rep. Ronald V. Dellums (D-calif.), chairman of the House District Committee, led a futile last-ditch effort on the House floor to turn back the veto.
Overturning the council-passed measure, he said, would "open up the floodgates" and drown home rule in the city. "Heaven knows when we'll ever get them closed," he added.
Rep. Michael D. Barnes (D-Md.), supporting the veto, said "the federal interest is very clear . . .Not only is this a national issue, but an international issue is at stake." Barnes serves on both the District and Foreign Affairs committee.
A ripple of laughter crossed the House floor when Rep. Robert E. Bauman (R-Md.), a frequent critic of both U.S. foreign policy and the city government, quipped that the resolution "poses a real problem . . . choosing between the D.C. City Council and the State Department."
The resolution was piloted through the House and, earlier in the day, through the District Committee by Rep. Fortney H. (Pete) Stark (D-Calif.). The District Committee voted 8 to 6 to send the measure to the floor.
The House moved ahead yesterday after Dellums and another District Committee member, Del. Walter E. Fauntroy (D-D.C.), made an extraordinary trip to the District Building to persuade the City Council to delay the effective date -- in mid-January -- of the chancery bill.
That would have bought time to seek a compromise on the issues.
Their mission failed. With the council in holiday recess, only 10 of the council's 13 members assembled for an informal meeting. Nine of them could have voted to convene an official legislative session to take emergency action. Only six agreed to do so.
Council Chairman Arrington Dixon (D) urged his colleagues to vote for a delay, contending it would be "a bad precedent, a very bad precedent" to see Congress overturn a council-passed bill.
"Once they start vetoing, they will always be voting," Nadine P. Winter (D-Ward 6) predicted.
"What are we going to do?" asked John L. Ray (D-At Large). "Every time we pass something (Congress doesn't like), are we going to pull it back and veto it?"
The council passed the measure by a unanimous voice vote on Oct. 9. It was signed by Mayor Marion Barry a month later. Barry said he would have supported any reasonable move taken yesterday by the council, but its inaction made it "an academic discussion."
Under the charter, Congress has the unrestricted power to overturn any council act within 30 legislative days after it is received at the Capitol for review. To do this, each house must pass an identical resolution of disapproval.
If Congress did not act before recessing for the Christmas holidays, Stark said, the 30-day review time would have run out and the council bill would have become law.
The council bill was designed to prevent the creation or expansion of chanceries chiefly in two residential areas of the city -- the historic Embassy Row, northwest of Dupont Circle, and along 16th Street above Scott Circle.
Many chanceries already existed in these areas before 1964, before D.C. home rule, when a law passed by Congress prohibited locating any more of them there. The federal government's National Capital Planning and the city's Zoning Commission adopted new rules in 1968 opening the area to such offices once again.
Affluent residents of the Embassy Row area prevailed on the council to pass the now-contested legislation overturning the planning and zoning bodies.
Congressional critics contended the council overstepped its authority by doing so. Council members responded with claims that they have full power to enact laws under which the Zoning Commission operates.
For Dellums and Stark, yesterday's clash at the District Committee meeting was an ironic confrontation between political neighbors. Both represent different parts of the same California city, Oakland.
All five blacks on the District Committee voted against overturning the council veto. They were Dellums, Fauntroy, Mickey Leland (D-Texas) and William H. Gray (D-Pa.), who were present, and Charles C. Diggs (D-Mich.), who voted by proxy. The sixth vote against the veto was that of Romano L. Mazzoli (D-Ky.).
All four Republican votes were cast in favor of the veto -- by Robert W. Daniel Jr. (Va.), Millicent Fenwick (N.J.) and Jim Jeffries (Kan.), who were present, and by Stewart B. McKinney (Conn.), who voted by proxy.
They were joined by Democrats Stark, Barnes and Herbet E. Harris (Va.), who were present, and by Toby Moffett (Conn.), who voted by proxy.
Rep. Marc L. Marks (R-Pa.) was absent and did not vote.
Mayor Marion Barry could not be reached for comment last night on the congressional action, but his press spokeswoman said he would consider it as "another example (that) we need to be in control of our own affairs."