Congress has agreed to withdraw a provision in the District's budget bill that allows the construction of two cellular telephone antenna towers in Rock Creek Park, lawmakers said yesterday.
The retreat by Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.), who inserted the tower measure over the objection of President Clinton and lawmakers in both parties, was disclosed as the Republican-led House approved the District's $4.7 billion budget for the third time yesterday.
GOP lawmakers also agreed to restore a 15.6 percent pay raise for D.C. Council members, to $92,500, after previously slashing it. They also said they would increase--from $50 an hour to $60--the cap on fees paid to private attorneys for special education plaintiffs in suits against the D.C. school district.
Daschle's reversal was abrupt. A week ago, he told reporters he was "absolutely" still in support of the Bell Atlantic Mobile towers.
"I'll call you from the park someday," he joked.
Phone calls to his spokeswoman were not returned yesterday. Daschle had defended the amendment, citing the need for cellular service in the park to make it safer for joggers and bikers. He also said federal land must be made available to wireless services under the 1996 Telecommunications Act, providing the companies prove the service is needed and that it meets environmental regulations.
Removing the cell tower provision does not necessarily mean the towers won't be built. The National Capital Planning Commission, the federal government's planning agency for the region, could still approve the towers. Daschle's rider, requested by Bell Atlantic Mobile, would have allowed the tower construction regardless of what the planning commission decided.
A Bell Atlantic Mobile spokeswoman said yesterday that the company wasn't aware of the change and declined further comment.
The phone company has tried for five years to put up two towers in Rock Creek Park, where valleys and foliage prevent clear, uninterrupted phone conversations. The company settled on two locations: the tennis center, with a 100-foot-tall tower; and a maintenance lot on Military Road, where a 130-foot tower would go.
Opponents, dominated by local residents, say the towers would disturb the park's aesthetics and could lead to additional towers there. Other critics, including the D.C. Council, Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and a host of other local and regional governments, said Daschle had no right to interfere with the planning commission's review process.
"If Congress and Daschle were to step back and let the process take its course, that's very good news," said D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large).
The budget vote--211 to 205, mostly along party lines--was an exercise intended to score political points but do little to resolve an impasse over the city's spending plan for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1. After the Senate votes on D.C.'s budget, the plan's fate will be decided by House, Senate and White House negotiators.
Even with the changes, such as the antenna towers, Clinton's budget advisers said yesterday, the new bill "makes virtually no significant improvements" from the one he vetoed Sept. 28. Clinton's rejection of the bill, he said then, stemmed from a belief that Congress should not interfere in decisions made by the local District government by attaching so-called social riders to the bill that ban the use of medical marijuana and drug-needle exchanges.
The District has been operating at last year's budget levels under a temporary spending resolution that expires Thursday. Lawmakers are trying to reach an agreement on a permanent D.C. budget by then. Before the negotiations begin, Republicans wanted to try pushing the D.C. spending plan a third time to embarrass the president by accusing him of being soft on drugs.
"The Republicans would rather have 'Beat Up on Bill Clinton Day' than sit down in a rational way to work out our differences," said Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.).
Replied Rep. Ernest J. Istook Jr. (R-Okla.), chairman of the D.C. appropriations subcommittee: "I didn't pick this fight. . . . The issue is, are we against drugs? Are you declaring a truce and a surrender in this nation's war on drugs?"
Democrats, in a tactic aimed at exposing the GOP majority's strategy, said they would agree to keep in the social riders--including medical marijuana and the needle exchange. But the Democrats said the Republicans would have to agree to a rider allowing the District to spend city funds providing legal assistance for lawsuits seeking voting representation in Congress for the city.
Republicans didn't take that bait, which the Democrats said proved they were not serious about resolving the D.C. budget.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said she has been ready to negotiate for several days. "The D.C. appropriation could probably be settled by grown-ups sitting down together for a short time," she said.
CAPTION: Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle abruptly reversed course on the towers in Rock Creek Park.