THE D.C. COUNCIL became topic No. 1 in the Senate debate on the District's fiscal year 2000 budget. When the dust settled, the Senate had unanimously adopted a sense-of-the-Senate resolution establishing benchmarks for measuring the council's performance in the next fiscal year.

The aim of the resolution, sponsored by the D.C. Appropriations subcommittee's ranking Democrat, Richard Durbin of Illinois, is to force city leaders to address basic quality-of- life concerns in the coming year. Those issues include fighting crime, management of parolees and pretrial violent offenders, correcting chronic problems in public education, improving basic social services, collecting federal grants on time and boosting the well-being of children.

To underscore Senate concern, the resolution stressed that the city's "progress or lack of progress" on those issues will be taken into consideration when appropriators review the District's fiscal year 2001 budget.

Sen. Durbin's actions were based on fear that the city, especially the council, had given tax cuts a higher priority than other city needs. While subcommittee chairman Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) strongly supported the city's tax-cut program, she urged unanimous adoption of the Durbin resolution, arguing that "having benchmarks and accountability we can look at next year is very appropriate."

While we appreciate the concern that prompted the resolution, we maintain that local spending priorities should be set by District voters, through their elected officials, and not by U.S. senators. If the council's actions are as misguided as Sen. Durbin thinks, then District voters will have their say at the polls next year. We don't believe, however, that the final budget and tax package -- as improved by the mayor and financial control board -- ill-serves the city. District leaders should feel free to pursue issues of importance to their constituents with or without Senate concurrence and without fear of congressional reprisal. Home rule requires no less.