Striding across the Capitol Plaza to crash a news conference by senators from his own party earned D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray a rebuke from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid but no clarity on what the District’s fate may as the federal government shutdown drags on.
“I’m on your side . . . don’t screw it up,” the Nevada Democrat scolded the mayor on the steps of the Capitol, before turning and heading up the stairs.
Answers Gray wanted to hear — on whether the Senate would vote on a bill to allow the District to spend locally raised funds, and how Congress might avert the funding crisis threatening the city’s Medicaid providers, emergency responders and transportation — were lacking.
Gray was fuming over a local budget “held hostage” by his own party. The mayor hopped a barricade following an 11 a.m. news conference on the East Lawn with charter school leaders, health care providers and regional fire and rescue representatives all demanding congressional action to free D.C.’s budget from the congressional appropriations stalemate.
The decision to directly confront the Democrats was impromptu, Gray later told reporters.
Urged forward by the chants and applause of dozens of District residents, he barged through a line of Capitol Police, drawing wide-eyed looks of surprise from Reid and his fellow Democrats.
Gray waited patiently to the right of the podium for the Democrats’ final speaker on the urgent need to raise the debt ceiling to conclude — while getting side-long glances from the senators assembled above him on the steps of the building. But Gray, who was soon joined by D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, heard nothing new.
When questioned by reporters, Reid offered no clarity on prospects for the D.C. funding bill, saying it was up to House Republicans. Democrats want Speaker John A. Boehner to allow a vote on a clean continuing resolution, and have so far rejected the Ohio Republican’s piecemeal approach to reopening the government.
As the Democrats dispersed, Sen. Barbara Boxer turned back with a message for Gray and Norton, telling them, “We’ve got to open up this government for all the good people in D.C.”
Gray cut in.
“We’re not a department of the government. All we’re asking is to spend our own money,” he said.
Boxer continued talking over the mayor. “It’s not about a department,” she responded before she was drowned out by the mayor.
Gray pressed on, saying, “We’re just asking to spend our own money. Our own money. Not the federal money. Our own money.
“We’re talking about the money of the people of the District of Columbia that shouldn’t be held hostage up here,” he said pointing to the Dome as he spoke.
Local budget autonomy advocates, including DC Vote, have been encouraging Gray to take action that flies in the face of federal law. They want the mayor to spend local tax dollars anyway. The move violates the Antideficiency Act that prohibits officers or employees of the D.C. government from authorizing spending not appropriated by Congress.
When asked by CQ Roll Call about the approach, Gray said, “We’re trying to remain as lawful as we possibly can because we do not want to contaminate our own case by doing something that is unlawful.”
Norton said, “I think we have to leave everything open, but it’s one step at a time.”
The White House has signaled it would block the funding bill as part of its opposition to the GOP’s selective approach to reopening the government.
Norton said President Barack Obama’s “rigid, across-the-board veto” threat mindlessly captures local taxpayer dollars, and that her efforts to lobby on behalf of the bill have “fallen on deaf ears.”
She and other District leaders are offended by attempts to lump the city in with federal agencies and saying its being treated like “hapless collateral damage.”
On day four of the shutdown, the mayor’s office announced that the Department of Public Works would begin emptying trash cans at some of the local national parks that closed Oct. 1, but hadn’t been barricaded by the National Park Service. Gray deemed it imperative that the city step in because the federal government couldn’t “step up” to tackle garbage piles that could attract rats and other rodents.
The city pays those employees through the use of contingency funds. Officials are currently considering the use of all of D.C.’s reserve funds, a total of $658 million, according to the office of Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi. The roughly 32,000-person workforce has a $98-million bi-weekly payroll.
This is the longest shutdown the city has ever faced. In 1995, the District shut down for five days. After recognizing the potential disaster, then-Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., helped pass legislation that largely spared the city from the subsequent 21-day shutdown that stretched into January 1996.
Norton worked on that agreement and has tried to craft a similar solution this time around, but her efforts have been fruitless.
The Democratic opposition seems especially hypocritical to Gray, after hearing many lawmakers come out in support of budget autonomy and D.C. statehood this summer.
Reid and other leading Democrats expressed support for District statehood during a June 19 unveiling of the Frederick Douglass statue in the Capitol Visitor Center.
“Now is an opportunity to demonstrate that we can function like a state,” Gray said.
Visitors get their first look at the American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial, which opened to the public on Monday, Oct. 6, 2014. The new memorial is located off Independence Ave. SW between the Rayburn House Office Building and HHS. Buy photo here.