Republican congressional leaders vowed yesterday to hold up final approval of the District's budget for fiscal 2000 unless Democrats and D.C. officials agree to prohibit the legalization of marijuana for medical uses.
A day after President Clinton vetoed the city's $4.7 billion budget because it included GOP "riders" to outlaw medical marijuana and a needle-exchange program aimed at slowing the spread of HIV and AIDS among drug addicts, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) accused the president of supporting a "left-wing social agenda."
It was a clear sign that this year's debate over the D.C. budget--initially coated in warm feelings as Congress embraced a new, reform-minded mayor and a D.C. Council that was pushing a big tax cut--now has degenerated into an ideological standoff between Capitol Hill Republicans and the White House.
Caught in the middle is the D.C. government, which likely will begin the fiscal year tomorrow without having its budget approved by Congress, as is required. The city has been granted temporary funding relief from Congress while the haggling over the budget continues, but D.C. officials say some programs could be affected if the budget debate isn't settled within a few weeks.
Yesterday, Republicans not only sought to make a political statement about D.C. proposals that they said would encourage drug use, but they also rejected complaints from officials in the heavily Democratic city that Congress should not trample home rule, the city's right to make its own decisions.
Hastert and Lott said they would not allow a medical marijuana law in the District, even though 69 percent of D.C. voters approved such a proposal in a 1998 referendum. Six states have similar laws, but unlike the District, they do not have to run their decisions by Congress.
"I'm sorry. It's not a local issue," Hastert said. "It's a life-and-death issue for a lot of our children."
That theme was continued at a House hearing yesterday, during which Republicans invited law enforcement officials to testify that increasing the availability of marijuana would encourage more use of the leaf.
Democrats, meanwhile, tried to turn the debate away from drugs and toward the idea that congressional Republicans, so conscious of states' rights on other matters, should allow the District's government and residents to decide what's best for the city.
D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), in a telephone conversation yesterday morning, told Lott that he believed that home rule--not drug policy--was the issue. Other D.C. officials noted that Clinton opposes medical marijuana but vetoed the D.C. budget because congressional Republicans simply had overrun the city's wishes.
"Mischaracterizing as drug-induced the veto of a president, who has appointed the toughest drug czar in history and himself has long opposed medical marijuana, is not credible," said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.). "The people I represent resent the conversion of their self-governing rights into a drug issue."
For all the posturing, informal talks began yesterday between the White House and lawmakers in both parties to try to reach a compromise on a spending plan for the city. Congress has approved a resolution keeping money flowing to the city at this year's levels starting tomorrow. The final, permanent city budget could be part of a separate bill or thrown in as part of a catch-all appropriations plan next month.
Some Republicans are cautioning Clinton and D.C. officials that some of their pet programs--such as expanding college tuition benefits for D.C. students--could be cut if the GOP-controlled Congress takes a second look at the District's budget.
Calling the veto "a terrible mistake," Lott asked, "What happens when the District of Columbia is a loser because of this?"
But Norton and administration officials dismissed that as an empty threat.
"I'm absolutely unmoved by the scare tactic," Norton said. "The District can't lose money unless the president gives it up."
Clinton will not propose any cuts, said Linda Ricci, spokeswoman for the White House budget office. If Republicans are worried about the fate of the D.C. budget in an omnibus appropriations bill, Ricci said, Congress could always send the president a separate D.C. budget bill with the anti-drug riders stripped out.
"The way to make sure the funding levels stay the same is to send a free-standing bill," Ricci said.
But Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.), chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on the District, said the GOP is not willing to compromise on the marijuana issue. If Clinton backs down, she said, lawmakers might be willing to consider a separate D.C. budget bill.
"We will not retreat on the drug issue," Hutchison said.
Hutchison's House counterpart, Rep. Ernest J. Istook Jr. (R-Okla.), said he's in no rush to move on the D.C. budget, adding that he wants the president and the Democrats to "sit in the mess they created."
"I don't think anyone feels a sense of urgency," he said.
Ricci responded: "Procrastination and delay are not encouraging signs. We think D.C. deserves better."
Staff writer Michael H. Cottman contributed to this report.
CAPTION: House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) and Rep. Ernest J. Istook Jr. (R-Okla.) defend the conditions congressional Republicans are trying to impose on the District's budget.
CAPTION: Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) called the budget veto "a terrible mistake."