The Senate voted yesterday to kill language in a D.C. spending bill that would have kept Washington's new convention center from booking sporting events, concerts and circuses, after opponents argued that the measure infringed on home rule and offered special protection to Abe Pollin, owner of the Capital Centre in Landover.
"This is nothing more than a money grab," said Sen. Thomas Eagleton (D-Mo.) in leading a highly emotional fight against efforts to restrict the leasing policies of the new $98.7-million center, scheduled to stage its grand opening on Friday.
"It's so shameful it should not have been proposed, but the ultimate shame would be to put this into federal law," Eagleton said. "It would be a national disgrace."
Sen. Warren Rudman (R-N.H.), another opponent, said the proposed restrictions were tailored to benefit the Capital Centre, which "would like to have as little competition as possible" in booking professional athletic events and rock concerts.
"I can understand that, but I don't agree with it," Rudman said.
By a voice vote, the Senate struck the restrictive language, which had been contained in the District's $1.9-billion spending bill for 1983 and virtually would have prevented the new center from being used for any events other than regional or national conventions and trade shows.
Minutes earlier, the Senate had voted 54 to 40 to reject a compromise amendment, offered by Sens. Alfonse D'Amato (R-N.Y.) and Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), that would have barred professional athletics and concerts from the convention center but permitted nonprofit events that benefit educational or charitable organizations.
Leahy, who is ranking minority member of the subcommittee on D.C. appropriations and helped steer the convention center project through the Senate, said the proposed compromise reflected the intent of Congress and city officials to use the center primarily to attract conventions and trade shows.
Without some restrictions, he said, the publicly supported convention center could "enter into a commercial enterprise with none of the risk that other facilities must take."
But Eagleton, a ranking member of the Appropriations and Governmental Affairs Committee, fired back that Leahy's amendment would sanction "sanitized greed" instead of "outright greed."
"What it means is that anything that makes money, Abe Pollin gets . . . and anything that is charitable and loses money . . . the city gets," Eagleton said. "The arrogance in this regard knows no bounds and the greed in this regard knows no limits."
Leahy, flushed with anger, replied that Eagleton's statement "borders on a personal attack."
The Senate action yesterday represented a setback for D'Amato and Leahy. D'Amato, the chairman of the D.C. appropriations subcommittee, had backed the restrictive language despite widespread criticism that it would encroach on home rule and would run counter to the true intent of Congress and D.C. officials in approving the new center.
The action ends the convention center controversy, since the House struck similar restrictions from its version of the city spending bill Sept. 30. The language had been added by the House and Senate appropriations committees partly at the urging of Pollin and Maryland officials, who feared that the new facility would sharply cut into the Capital Centre's business.
Pollin could not be reached for comment last night.
Maryland Sens. Paul Sarbanes (D) and Charles McC. Mathias (R) and Virginia Sen. John Warner (R) voted for the amendment to restrict the convention center, while Virginia Sen. Harry F. Byrd Jr., an independent, voted against it.
After resolving the convention center dispute, the Senate voted to approve the city's 1983 appropriations bill. Differences in the Senate and House versions of the bill will be worked out in conference committee.