The Washington Post

Democrats were for a D.C. shutdown exception before they were against it

Norton begged her Democratic colleagues Tuesday night to exempt the District from the federal shutdown to no avail. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

At 4:19 p.m. today, the House of Representatives passed a measure freeing the District of Columbia to spend its locally collected funds and otherwise conduct business as usual through Dec. 15.

The vote was taken by acclamation, but on Tuesday a recorded vote on a similar measure failed because most House Democrats — yes, Democrats, the traditional friends of the District of Columbia — opposed it, thus denying the two-thirds majority necessary to pass the bill under the circumstances.

The Democrats explained their opposition in the same terms as they have explained their opposition to similar bills that would carve out appropriations for veterans or for national parks: They are not participating in any piecemeal Republican schemes to exempt parts of the federal government from the ongoing shutdown.

District Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) was granted floor time to urge her colleagues to vote for the D.C. funding bill, joining Republicans like Darrell Issa (Calif.), chairman of the powerful Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Meanwhile, several prominent Democrats urged votes against it, including Rep. Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.) — chair of the appropriations subcommittee handling the city budget and an oft-recognized friend of the District.

Even more ironic was that more than 100 House Democrats — including leaders Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), Steny Hoyer (Md.) and James Clyburn (S.C.) — had signed a letter Monday urging House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to hold the District harmless in case of a federal shutdown, citing the potentially disastrous effects of such a “predictable and avoidable calamity” on the city.

“If the District government shuts down, basic municipal services would cease or be curtailed,” the letter said. “Not only do the more than 600,000 D.C. residents rely on these services, but so do our constituents who visit or work in the city, private sector businesses, federal officials, federal buildings and foreign embassies. Furthermore, District financing agreements could be terminated, further impacting city services and sending the city’s borrowing costs soaring.”

In the end, only 34 Democrats supported the bill Tuesday night that would help avoid all of that.

The bill now goes to the Senate, where Reid has so far shown no inclination toward bringing any piecemeal spending bills to the floor. Norton said in a evening news release that she was “still trying” to get the Senate and Obama administration to support a standalone D.C. spending measure.

Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), asked about the vote Wednesday afternoon, called the Democrats’ posture “hugely disappointing” and said it would not have weakened the party’s bargaining position to pass a D.C. spending bill.

“I thought that they could make the case that … this was about a city that had no business being included in this in the first place and at the first opportunity should be exempted from this process, and that case was not made,” he said. “I don’t think it’s that difficult to understand that we’re not a department of the federal government.”

“I absolutely fell like a pawn,” Gray added. “And it doesn’t even feel like a chess game. A chess game has a certain intellectual quality about it.”

Mike DeBonis covers Congress and national politics for The Washington Post. He previously covered D.C. politics and government from 2007 to 2015.

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