President Clinton kept a promise yesterday to veto the District's $4.7 billion budget for the fiscal year that begins Friday, because of what he said were unfair restrictions placed on the D.C. government by congressional Republicans.
"Congress had added a number of unacceptable riders that prevent local residents from making their own decisions about local matters," the president said in a statement. Among other things, he was referring to GOP efforts to block the District from legalizing the use of marijuana for medical purposes or implementing a needle-exchange program for drug addicts to try to slow the spread of HIV and AIDS.
Republicans argued that such measures would promote drug use; Clinton countered that Congress's interference was done in a way that lawmakers "would not have done to any other local jurisdiction in the country."
For now, the veto has little practical effect on D.C. government operations. Congress is expected to consider a resolution keeping money flowing to the city at this year's spending levels until a permanent budget agreement can be reached before lawmakers adjourn this fall.
But "it does mean that no new projects can proceed and that we can't hire for newly funded positions," said Valerie Holt, the city's chief financial officer.
The president's action was a symbolic victory for the city's Democratic leadership, which turned against its own spending plan after Republicans added riders that sought to undo several decisions made by city residents.
Congress's move against the medical use of marijuana ran counter to the results of a citywide referendum in which D.C. residents overwhelmingly supported such a proposal. The GOP also blocked approval of the District's needle-exchange program, which was patterned after efforts in six other cities.
D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), when told of the veto while at the White House yesterday with first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton for a news conference on the New Year's celebration on the Mall, said, "It is unfortunate that Congress, after all the good work on our budget and support for our local officials' priorities, adopted social riders that intrude into the self-government of the District."
Republicans shot back that Clinton's veto amounted to presidential support for drug use. They suggested that favorite programs of Williams and others could be cut when the budget is reconsidered next month. Republicans, Democrats and the Clinton administration will negotiate a final budget; it is unlikely that there is enough support for a congressional override of Clinton's veto.
"My fear is that the budget is so tight that you could put the money in jeopardy the second time around," said Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), chairman of the House Government Oversight subcommittee on the District. "The reality is, among Republicans and Democrats, the constituency for spending money for the District is not that great. They'd rather put money into other programs for their own constituents."
Linda Ricci, spokeswoman for the White House budget office, countered: "There's no reason Congress can't go back and make improvements to this bill on issues of home rule while still maintaining the same level of funding we've agreed upon."
The budget includes the largest tax cut in the city's history and a college tuition program that would allow D.C. high school graduates to attend universities elsewhere at lower, in-state tuition rates. There's money to clean up the Anacostia River, wipe out open-air drug markets and widen the 14th Street bridges.
"It's unfortunate that the president thinks that legalizing marijuana and giving drug needles away is more important than providing college scholarships to D.C. students," said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.), chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on the District.