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There was a warm embrace and a kiss on the cheek between longtime friends Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton and Rep. José E. Serrano, plus cordial political disagreement about how to stop the federal government shutdown from grinding Washington, D.C., to a halt.
During a downtown gala at the Mayflower Renaissance’s grand ballroom on Wednesday night, Norton introduced the New York Democrat as a man who “puts his full credibility on the line” for the District.
Serrano was being honored as a “champion of democracy” on behalf of DC Vote, the local organization that seeks to end taxation without representation for the District.
Hours before, the pair had attended a White House meeting, during which Norton pressed President Barack Obama for a solution for a city “on the brink of disaster” in front of nearly 200 fellow House Democrats.
Norton’s attempts to wrangle support for a GOP-backed bill that would allow D.C. to use its locally raised tax funds through Dec. 15, thus averting a shutdown, have been thwarted by her own colleagues. She said she suspects her colleagues’ hesitancy is being driven by the president’s threat to veto the D.C. funding bill.
“I had to go to the source of the problem, and that’s the president,” Norton said. When she rose to ask Obama to lift his veto threat, the president gave a five-minute answer that “demanded a response,” she said.
Obama compared D.C. to other localities that have been strained since Oct. 1, but Norton objected, arguing that the District’s dependence on Congress for approval to spend its own taxpayer-funded budget necessitates immediate action.
“It demanded a conversation,” Norton said. “It didn’t demand me to ask a question and then be seated like a nice little delegate from the District of Columbia.” Obama “spoke back and forth to me peer to peer,” she said, adding, “I don’t think he resented it a bit.”
Serrano, who was in the front row of the White House meeting, joked, “I thought you were going to hit him or something. He is tall.”
Serrano and other Democrats were on the receiving end of Norton’s strident “it’s our money, not yours” demands last week when the House debated the short-term D.C. funding bill. At the time, Serrano joked that he would have to avoid his friend of more than two decades in the halls of Congress for joining his Democratic colleagues in a vote to defeat the bill. It was later approved by a voice vote.
Though he has advocated on behalf of District autonomy throughout his 23 years in Congress, Serrano continues to categorize the miniature funding bill as “a sham” being used by Republicans to provide political cover for failing to pass a clean continuing resolution.
Rejection of the bill was cast as a “deeply cynical maneuver” by House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who has worked with District leaders on D.C. budget autonomy issues.
In his single political quip of the night, Serrano warned the audience at the gala to beware of the Republicans who normally turn a cold shoulder to the District, who are “using certain situations to claim that they [are] friends.”
Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, and House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., both supported the funding measure. They’ve also backed an Appropriations Committee report that referred to D.C.’s budget autonomy referendum — an effort District officials have worked hard to pass into law — as “an expression of the opinion of the residents, only, and without any authority to change or alter the existing relationship between federal appropriations and the District.”
Norton sees no point in spurning the newfound Republican support. “Sure, it’s for their convenience,” she said. “What difference should that make?”
The District Democrat rejected any notion that she was mad at the members of her party who were standing in the way of the bill and has vowed to keep fighting.
Laughter rang through the ballroom when Serrano cracked a joke about that fighting spirit. Norton is a “classic noodge,” he said, drawing on some of the Yiddish vocabulary he has picked up from his Bronx district. “Everything that comes out of this woman’s mouth is on behalf of Washington, D.C.”
Norton said the opposition is not frustrating, “it’s energizing,” and it encourages her to keep reminding her friends that they need to make the distinction between D.C.’s local funds and federal appropriations.
“I know who my friends are,” she said. “My friends are the very people who voted against me last week, but they are the best friends we’ve got.”