Bar Fight Pits Senate Versus City
The fight to drink until dawn during the inauguration weekend has quickly morphed into a debate over whether Congress should get involved in the citys politics.
It all started Tuesday, when Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Bob Bennett (R-Utah) sent a letter to Washington, D.C., officials, urging the city to reverse its plan to allow bars and restaurants to serve alcohol until 5 a.m. from Jan. 17 to Jan. 20.
Their concerns mirrored those of police officers mainly, that the extra hours of drinking could stretch the citys resources and overwhelm law enforcement agencies.
By Wednesday morning, some D.C. bloggers were criticizing the Senators interference in what they saw as a D.C. issue. And on Capitol Hill, bar owners even those who dont plan to take advantage of the extra hours agreed.
We dont get involved in their affairs; they shouldnt get involved in ours, said Capitol Lounge owner Adam Manson, who will close his bar at the usual weekend time of 3 a.m. State Senators shouldnt dictate what happens in D.C.
But Howard Gantman, Feinsteins staff director, said the decision will affect the inauguration, which falls under Feinsteins responsibility as chairwoman of the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies. Bennett is also a member of the committee.
All law enforcement resources and emergency response resources will need to be dedicated toward ensuring this event goes smoothly, he said. Any diversion of these resources to other purposes could potentially cause problems.
He pointed to an array of possible side effects of a 5 a.m. last call that could seriously impact people getting to the inauguration, such as incidents at still-open bars and drunken drivers on the road at 5 or 6 a.m.
The Capitol Police, however, arent worried. Chief Phillip Morse said Wednesday that the extension wont affect his force during the inauguration ceremony.
I dont want to sound like it doesnt concern me. Drunk drivers concern me, he said. But he added that he wasnt aware of any bars on the Hill that would pose problems.
Several bars on the Hill dont plan to take advantage of the extended last call.
Like Capitol Lounge, SOVA might close at its normal time. Frank Hankins, owner of the bar on the H Street corridor, said hes not sure the profit will outweigh the operating costs.
Can you justify staying open just to serve maybe 20 people or 25 more people? Thats what it comes down to, he said.
On the Senate side, Union Pub located around the corner from the Hart Senate Office Building might stay open late, depending on the crowd.
Manager Lillian Darby said the pub will make the decision each evening contingent on whether people are actually here drinking and spending money and not retarded drunk.
But even she said she wouldnt be upset if Congress or the D.C. Council reversed the decision to extend bar hours.
I think it would be a good idea to do the night of the inauguration, she said, but I think doing it for the whole weekend is extremely excessive.
Its unclear whether Feinstein and Bennetts letter will persuade D.C. officials to reverse the extension, which was passed via emergency legislation earlier this month.
Mayor Adrian Fenty and D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray have said they will work with Congress on the issue. But on Wednesday, Fenty told NewsChannel 8 that he would sign the bill into law. Gray also hinted in a statement Wednesday that his view on the issue hasnt changed.
While I respect the views of Senators Feinstein and Bennett, he said, having venues available for residents and visitors alike in which to spend time during the Inaugural celebrations for President-elect Barack Obama will provide entertainment options in organized settings for people.
At-large Councilmember Phil Mendelson (D) said some of his colleagues might be having second thoughts, mostly because of the publics reaction. He voted against extending bar hours.
I think any honest look at the situation would have to admit that theres a federal interest in the inauguration, he said. I happen to agree [with Feinstein and Bennett], although its probably more accurate to say they agree with me because I raised the issue first.
Gantman wouldnt comment on what steps if any Feinstein would take if the council refuses to reverse the legislation. Congress could pass a bill of its own nullifying the councils actions, though that seems unlikely.
To D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), a letter is all thats necessary and appropriate. Senators should be able to make suggestions, she said.
I wish more Members of Congress would approach changes they want in precisely this way, she said, by sending a letter laying out their reasons for desiring the change rather than seeking to overturn a law of the District of Columbia.