The Washington Post

Budget autonomy efforts still stuck after shutdown, Gray says

Vincent Gray says his shutdown activism changed more minds in the public than on Capitol Hill. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

With the federal shutdown nearly a week in the past, Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) said Tuesday he believed the city’s efforts to win spending freedom from Congress might have changed hearts and minds in the public but not necessarily among Capitol Hill lawmakers.

The congressional spending deal lawmakers agreed to last week included a significant win for the District — full approval of its fiscal 2014 budget, allowing the city to spend locally raised funds through Sept. 30 — but nothing to give the city a more permanent exemption from federal shutdowns.

District voters in April approved a charter amendment that promises to grant the city permanent budget autonomy, but Gray and his attorney general, Irvin B. Nathan, remain skeptical of the measure’s legality, and it remains unclear what will happen when it goes into effect Jan. 1.

While Gray said “enlightenment of the public has changed significantly” due to city leaders’ shutdown agitation, not much has changed in Congress, where a budget autonomy bill remains mired in national political debates. When a budget autonomy bill moved in 2011, it was laden with riders — including a permanent ban on using local tax funds for abortions — that led District leaders to abandon their support.

Not much has changed since then, Gray said Monday. “What continues to be an issue, quite candidly, is what happens with these riders?” he said. “Question is, can we get enough legislators to be able say this doesn’t happen to any other state or county or municipality, and it shouldn’t happen to the District of Columbia, either.”

Gray said he has in recent days made phone calls to Capitol Hill figures who helped secure the language giving the city year-long spending authority. Asked if Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) — who told Gray he was “on your side” during a dramatic Capitol encounter in the midst of the shutdown — in fact proved himself to have been on the city’s side in the end, Gray singled out another senator for praise.

“He clearly had to provide the leadership in the Senate,” he said. “But there had to be others too, like Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) who was a real champion for the city is all of this.”

And Gray was not shy about claiming credit for himself and other city leaders in turning the shutdown crisis into an opportunity for the city.

“I think the advocacy I engaged in, that [Eleanor Holmes Norton] engaged in, was absolutely essential, and it certainly elevated the issue, not only in the city, but nationally and internationally,” he said. “No one would have planned it that way, but it served an important purpose for us.”

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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