Members of Congress directly involved with District affairs -- both Democrats and Republicans, both in the House and the Senate -- were outraged. City officials were flabbergasted.
But in a 221-to-199 vote on the House floor last week, a majority of House members flexed their muscles on the abortion issue, voting to prohibit the District of Columbia from using its own funds to pay for abortions for poor women.
The District's budget bill probably will emerge from Congress without the new restriction in it. The chairmen of the District's appropriations subcommittees, Rep. Julian C. Dixon (D-Calif.), and Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), strongly oppose the amendment, and should be able to delete it in conference. Specter already took it out of the Senate's version of the bill, approved last week by the Appropriations Committee.
But to District officials and the city's supporters on the Hill, it was a stunning affront to the concept of home rule and points up the degree to which the District still can be used by Congress as a symbol, as a testing ground, as a scapegoat on sensitive issues.
"The members know they could not by any means pass such a law for the nation and thus for the people of their own districts. The people would not stand for it," said D.C. Del. Walter E. Fauntroy.
"It's easy for folks from New Jersey and Iowa and Texas to vote for this since it applies only to the District of Columbia," said one top city official who asked not to be named.
The House was able to take the action concerning the District because, unlike any other city or state in this country, the District's budget still must be approved by Congress every year, even with home rule.
Congress several years ago prohibited the use of any federal funds for abortions except when the mother's life is in danger or in cases of rape or incest. But 14 states and the District use their own funds to pay for abortions for poor women.
One of the 14 is New Jersey, home of Rep. Christopher Smith (R), who introduced the anti-abortion amendment. But his amendment will not apply to his own constituency, where the state can continue to pay for abortions for poor women, just to the District of Columbia.
Maryland is another state that funds abortion for poor women, but four of the state's eight members of Congress -- Reps. Helen Delich Bentley (R), Marjorie S. Holt (R), Roy Dyson (D) and Beverly B. Byron (D) -- voted to prevent their urban neighbor from doing so.
Rep. Stan Parris (R-Va.), a member of the House District Committee, and Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), a new member of the District appropriations subcommittee, represent jurisdictions where state funds are not used to finance abortions. Both have said in the past that they are supporters of home rule for the District. Yet both voted to bar the District from using its own tax dollars for abortion.
Smith dismisses the home rule issue. He equates the home rule argument here with some states' arguments in the past that slavery was a states' rights issue and to the South African government's position that its apartheid policy of racial discrimination is an internal matter. Instead Smith argues that abortion is a national and not purely a local concern.
But others see the vote as politically motivated.
"I saw a House fearful" of the right wing and losing their seats, Rep. Parren Mitchell (D-Md.) said in a speech last week.
"It was a knee-jerk reaction" to an anti-abortion amendment, said Rep. Lawrence Coughlin (R-Pa.), ranking minority member of the House District appropriations subcommittee. "It just infuriated me," he said.
"It's not right. It's not fair," Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.), ranking minority member on the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on the District, said in an interview after the vote. "It seems the forces of restriction are gaining ground."
The amendment does not actually prohibit abortions, and would not affect women who can afford one. It simply would make it far more difficult for thousands of poor women in the District of Columbia to pay for one.
These women, some of them teen-age girls, would face a choice of either scraping together enough money for the operation, having children they do not want or trying extreme measures such as dangerous attempts at self-induced abortions. Discussion of the women involved was noticeably absent from the congressional debate.
But 221 members of Congress now can go home and point to their anti-abortion vote -- one that has no impact on their own constituents.