A partisan fight over adoption of the D.C. budget escalated last night as the Republican-led House narrowly approved social and health mandates on the District while endorsing the city's $4.7 billion budget and tax cuts.
The largely party-line vote was 208 to 206 in support of the mandates and spending plan. Rep. Constance A. Morella (R-Md.) was one of eight Republicans who joined the Democrats in opposing the measure. Other Washington area lawmakers voted with their respective parties.
Among other things, the so-called social riders attached to the bill would prohibit the city from legalizing marijuana for medicinal purposes and from supplying free, clean needles to drug addicts.
One measure would stop spending of city money on most abortions. Another rider would ban city spending on health benefits for unmarried domestic partners. The legislation also would allow Bell Atlantic Mobile to build two cellular telephone towers in Rock Creek Park.
Clinton administration officials said last night that if the legislation, which could be considered by the Senate as early as next week, comes to the president with the riders attached, Clinton will be advised to veto it.
"This bill contains numerous provisions that would essentially trample on the ability of the District of Columbia to conduct its business in a way consistent with home rule. Therefore, we oppose it," said Linda Ricci, spokeswoman for the White House budget office.
Lawmakers defended the drug restrictions as necessary to prevent the District from returning to what Rep. Ernest J. Istook Jr. (R-Okla.) called "the worst of the Marion Barry days, when the loose attitude toward illegal drugs made the city the butt of late-night talk show jokes."
Istook, chairman of the Appropriations Committee subcommittee on the District, accused Rep. James P. Moran (D-Va.), who led the opposition, of promoting a "pro-drug agenda."
"Where do you draw the line?" Istook asked. "If you say it's okay for D.C. to legalize marijuana, then what's next? Legalizing cocaine? Or heroin? Or perhaps rape and murder?"
Moran and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said the sole issue was whether the District would be able to decide how to spend its money.
"We would not impose these kind of restrictions on any of our local governments that are being imposed on the District of Columbia," Moran said.
Norton added, "The District should not be asked to grovel to get its own money."
The vote was difficult for Democratic lawmakers torn between supporting many of the provisions in the spending plan and defending the District's right to govern itself. Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) asked his Democratic colleagues to put aside the congressionally imposed mandates and consider the bill's benefits.
The budget includes the largest tax cut in the city's history, central to the District's goal of retaining and attracting residents and businesses. It contains spending cuts and extra money for such programs as drug treatment and cleaning up the Anacostia River. And it opens up opportunities for D.C. high school graduates to attend some out-of-state colleges and universities but pay in-state rates.
D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), who had worked with local and congressional leaders for many of those programs, said last night, "I am deeply dismayed that the bill we sent to the Hill--a balanced budget that included a tax cut, a surplus and critical investments in our neighborhoods and young people--came back weighted down with attachments that are not in the best interests of the residents of this city."
Williams, Clinton administration officials, District government leaders and area Democratic lawmakers had fought to have the riders stripped out of the city's proposed general fund spending plan for the budget year that begins Oct. 1.
Earlier this summer, the House and Senate approved differing versions of the proposed District budget bill, but a House-Senate conference committee later added more restrictions.
The District budget would seem a relatively easy task for a Congress faced with approving billions of dollars in spending plans for 13 agencies and programs by Oct. 1. But D.C. officials say the city budget debate often gives lawmakers an opportunity to make partisan points on their favorite social issues at the expense of the city's residents.
Free needle exchange programs, for instance, operate in dozens of cities in an effort to limit the spread of HIV infection. But many elected officials say it is contradictory to offer addicts needles to use illegal drugs, a practice that they say actually could increase drug use.
Lawmakers also objected to the city providing money to pay for petition drives and lawsuits seeking to require voting representation in Congress for the District.