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D.C. Faces Statehood, Marijuana Challenges With Republican Congress

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., with Norton. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The Republican wave didn’t crash in the District of Columbia, but that doesn’t mean the victors won’t have to contend with the GOP Congress.  

As local Democrat Muriel Bowser celebrated a double-digit victory in the mayoral contest over independent challenger David Catania, she also took time to speak with Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., about the makeup of the House and Senate.  

Bowser has promised statehood and legislative autonomy would both be priorities when working with Capitol Hill, and told CQ Roll Call she supported the D.C. Council’s attempt to force Mayor Vincent Gray and Chief Financial Officer Jeffrey S. DeWitt to comply with the local Budget Autonomy Act via the court system.  

“Well I supported the council’s action in that,” Bowser said Tuesday. “I would expect that to be my policy as well.”  

That might put her at odds with the newly elected top lawyer in the District, though. Voters chose veteran attorney Karl A. Racine to serve as the city’s first elected attorney general, who said the lawsuit is “not a winning case” during an Oct. 23 debate. The former associate White House counsel under President Bill Clinton defeated Paul Zukerberg, the attorney who appealed to the courts to get the race on the ballot , and three other candidates who also ran as Democrats. Supporters of the council’s appeal hoped that a chief lawyer who was elected, rather than appointed, might make the legal stand-off between the council and mayor's office moot  by choosing to enforce the voter-backed initiative. Racine was not available for an interview on Wednesday, but it seems likely the city will need to get Congress to pass budget autonomy legislation if they want to cut financial ties with Capitol Hill.  

“When Congress gave us Home Rule they kind of walked away from the District, but they didn’t give everything to us, as we know, so it’s always a challenge how we can get their attention, get them to work with us because they haven’t delegated everything,” said D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, who was easily re-elected for another four-year term. With a new Congress, the challenge is building new relationships, he said.  

“I want to reach out to whoever the congressional leaders are and do my best to build relationships with them, but they have to reciprocate,” Mendelson continued.  

The first confrontation between D.C. officials and Congress will likely center on the marijuana legalization referendum, which was approved by 65 percent of voters.  

Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md. has already said he plans to stop marijuana legalization in the District, confirming to CQ Roll Call that he “will consider using all resources available to a member of Congress to stop this action, so that drug use among teens does not increase.” Both Norton and Bowser said they will fight any attempt to derail legalization.  

In the hours following the election, Norton, who scored 81 percent of the vote to win a 13th term, said opponents of the city’s initiative to legalize “haven’t seen a fight like the fight I’m preparing to make against Rep. Andy Harris and any other Member of Congress who attempts to undo our democratic process."  

Bowser also said she would counter resistance from Capitol Hill. “I am ... willing to do everything possible to fight for our rights, especially to respect what the voters have already voted on,” Bowser said at a press conference Wednesday.  

National Democrats have given D.C. rights plenty of attention  this fall. Outgoing Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said it was “long past time” for D.C. voting rights, and Sen. Thomas R. Carper, D-Del., convened a committee hearing on statehood legislation . President Barack Obama also voiced his support for statehood over the summer.  

Bowser stressed Wednesday that she will continue to fight for D.C. voting rights. “I want to set the tone that we're going to have a consistent strategy,” Bowser said. “That no matter what happens, we're fighting and we're being strategic about how to have full democracy in the District of Columbia.”  

DC Vote Executive Director Kimberly Perry emphasized that budget autonomy, in particular, has already received support from Republicans. Her organization has been building a case that a hands-off approach to D.C. meshes with the GOP agenda, including House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s plan to streamline government.  

“We went at it with a vengeance this year and we have to do it even more with the next Congress,” Perry said in an interview. “This idea of greater local autonomy and less federal interference is completely consistent with the Republican brand.”  

Related: How Will GOP Approach D.C.'s Marijuana Legalization? Rand Paul: Let D.C. Legalize Marijuana, If Voters Want Could Nov. 4 Render D.C. Budget Autonomy Fight Moot? Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.