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D.C. Council Referendum Gets Chilly Hill Reception

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo
D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton has not yet indicated support for the D.C. Council's referendum, saying she has concerns about "the legal and institutional risks."

D.C. councilmembers have unanimously endorsed a new strategy for achieving budget autonomy that wouldn't require Congress' help. They are forging ahead, however, without clear support from top local officials and, for that matter, House Republican leadership.

D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) today introduced a measure authorizing a citywide vote on a referendum to amend the Home Rule Charter that would unlink the District's budget from the Congressional appropriations process.

If the authorizing bill is endorsed before the end of the year, residents would have the opportunity to vote on the referendum during the next scheduled election, likely a special election expected to take place as early as April. If it passes, Congress would have 35 days to pass a disapproval resolution on the charter amendment. If Congress fails to do so, the proposal would go into effect.

House Republican leaders, though, who have been negotiating with D.C. officials on budget autonomy, were not amused.

"This new approach proposed by the city council would set back the real efforts in Congress to provide the District more flexibility," a senior Republican Leadership aide told Roll Call.

Pursuing this avenue was necessary, Mendelson said, because although there has been momentum on Capitol Hill during the past year to advance D.C. budget autonomy legislation, it has frequently been linked to issues such as abortion or gun rights.

"All along, we have been pursuing getting a clean bill passed on the Hill to advance D.C. democracy and self-determination," Mendelson said in his introduction of the bill today. "Despite considerable efforts by many people, this strategy has not produced the clean bill we need."

Mendelson emphasized that the referendum tactic, lobbied for by activist groups DC Appleseed and DC Vote, would not replace efforts by GOP allies in Congress to help the District. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the D.C.-focused Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has emerged over the past year as the city's unlikely champion.

A referendum, Mendelson said, was also not intended to override advocacy by D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), who, along with Mayor Vincent Gray (D), has spent considerable time forging relationships with powerful House Republicans who can help them meet their goals.

"This allows us to pursue a two-track strategy ... to continue to support our allies on the Hill and their efforts to achieve affirmative legislation while at the same time realizing ... that the charter referendum process allows us to produce a clean bill on our own," Mendelson said.

Walter Smith and Ilir Zherka, executive directors of DC Appleseed and DC Vote, respectively, have also made this distinction.

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