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Bob McDonnell’s Backing Puts D.C. Autonomy on Front Burner

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Gov. Bob McDonnell (left) wrote in his letter that making D.C.’s budget independent from Congress’ appropriations schedule would ensure that local operations do not shut down in case federal funds are cut off.

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) has become an unexpected ally in the push to give the District of Columbia control of its own budget.

In the day since that news broke, stakeholders have weighed in on what it could mean for the movement and what might be going on behind the scenes to move legislation forward to make budget autonomy a reality.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) on Thursday praised McDonnell’s support as a crucial step forward, calling it the completion of a “troika” of high-level endorsements for the concept.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who chairs the Oversight and Government Reform Committee with jurisdiction over D.C. affairs, said late last year he was committed to introducing a bill to give D.C. control over its budget. And a week ago, President Barack Obama signaled in his fiscal 2013 budget proposal that he wanted to help such a bill become law.

“Support coming from a very important regional leader is much more than icing on the cake,” Norton told Roll Call. “[McDonnell] brings an entirely different and new and compelling perspective.”

McDonnell wrote to Issa and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) of his position in a Feb. 9 letter obtained by Roll Call and other media outlets Wednesday evening.

That Cantor was among the recipients of the letter is also significant, Norton said. “I think just as the governor has heard from friends in the District and in Northern Virginia, so had Eric Cantor.”

But it is unclear where Cantor, or other key House Republican leaders, stands on the issue. Cantor spokeswoman Laena Fallon told Roll Call, “The Majority Leader is aware of Gov. McDonnell’s letter and will continue to monitor the issue.”

In his letter, McDonnell hinted that the issue has been an ongoing discussion among the three. He wrote to Issa and Cantor that the memo is “a follow up to our conversations,” but no one has been able to provide more information on what these conversations were about or where they took place.

“The governor heard about this issue from a number of people and was compelled to write the letter himself,” said Taylor Thornley, a spokeswoman for McDonnell.

Norton suggested that former Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) might have played some role in bringing the issue to McDonnell’s attention. Davis was an ally of the District when he was chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and he continues to serve as a liaison on D.C. issues.

In an interview with Roll Call on Thursday afternoon, Davis, now the director of federal government affairs for Deloitte & Touche LLP, said McDonnell’s interest was sparked by a series of conversations among relevant parties.

“Obviously I’ve had some input,” he said. “I’ve told him he’s certainly on the right side of this ... and that Virginia residents who work in the [District] are not advantaged when the city shuts down.”

Davis couldn’t comment on how House Republican leaders feel about unlinking D.C.’s budget from the Congressional appropriations process but said that in addition to Issa, Rep. Jo Ann Emerson is supportive.

The Missouri Republican would be another important ally: She is the chairwoman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government, into which D.C.’s yearly budget is folded.

“She is open to the concept depending on how it is implemented,” said Jeffrey Conner, Emerson’s spokesman.

McDonnell argues in his letter, as many have, that making D.C.’s budget independent from Congress’ appropriations schedule would ensure that local operations do not shut down in case the government cannot reach a spending agreement and federal funds are cut off.

“The District of Columbia is one of the three partnering jurisdictions in the National Capitol region,” McDonnell wrote. “When the city is unable to plan its future investments in infrastructure, it has an impact on the economic development dynamic for the entire region.”

A shutdown of the Metro system, for instance, would have affected more than 100,000 Virginians who commute into the District each day for work, he said.

Although Norton was not aware of the letter until it became public, Mayor Vincent Gray was copied onto the memo. He released a statement Wednesday night praising McDonnell’s position and recognizing its important role.

“I welcome [his] recognition that it’s only fair and makes sense for the District of Columbia to have budget autonomy and I thank him for his outreach to House leaders,” Gray said. “I am delighted that momentum is building toward the district achieving the autonomy it deserves.”

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