The House voted last night to free most of the District's $5.8 billion 2003 spending plan from a months-long budget standoff in Congress, allowing the city to spend locally raised dollars as Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and D.C. Council members first approved in April.
The emergency measure, which came more than three months after the fiscal year began, frees the District to pay for new initiatives. Congress had frozen spending at last year's levels through stopgap measures used to keep the government operating. Among the new spending is a $79 million increase for public schools, pay raises for firefighters and teachers and new slots for social workers in the city's troubled D.C. Child and Family Services Agency.
The D.C. provision was attached without debate to the latest budget continuing resolution, which the House approved by voice vote, and goes now to the Senate, where it is expected to pass.
A spokesman for House Appropriations Committee Chairman C.W. Bill Young (R-Fla.) said the extraordinary step was meant to help the city carry out its fiscal plan without waiting for President Bush and the GOP majorities in the House and Senate to settle differences with Democrats over the federal budget.
Only two of 13 federal budget bills have passed, and some Democrats interpreted the willingness of House leaders to let the D.C. budget go forward as a sign that Republicans were digging in over disputes that predate the November elections.
But District officials praised the step in any event.
"What a relief!" said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), who thanked Young for releasing the District funds while adding it was a disservice to hold up city finances for a full fiscal quarter. She said the approval also augured the need for Congress to end its direct oversight of District finances, a step sought by Williams and Norton.
"I hope this experience will indicate to the Congress this very year that the city must have some measure of budget autonomy to spend its own locally raised funds in the future," Norton said.
Changes in federally funded programs were not approved, however, and amendments that Congress traditionally has imposed on the District have yet to be debated.
The District is slated to get $517 million in federal aid to operate its courts, prisons and Medicaid program, including $108 million in new assistance for public charter schools, homeland security, sewer infrastructure and family court reforms.
That funding package is expected to be trimmed by about $5 million to meet Bush administration spending limits when the new, Republican-led Senate Appropriation Committee meets, tentatively scheduled for tomorrow. It then has to be hammered out between House and Senate negotiators in a formal D.C. budget bill later this month, congressional sources said.
Other actions on congressional provisions that have been disputed between the chambers, such as a ban on local spending on drug needle exchange programs and a cap on attorney's fees in special education cases, also need to be hashed out.
Yesterday's vote came months after a demand by House and Senate appropriators that District leaders close a $323 million budget gap that emerged between the time local officials approved a budget last spring and Oct. 1, the beginning of the fiscal year.
Williams and council members rushed to make spending cuts and raise taxes, but Congress held up action on the underlying budget.
"We're obviously pleased," said Tony Bullock, spokesman for Williams. "We appreciate the recognition of the impact this situation has on the District."