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D.C. budget languishes on Hill; Clinton threatens second veto

(Published October 18, 1999)


Staff Writer

The House debate over the D.C. appropriations bill turned into another debate over the controversial medical marijuana initiative passed by District voters, with Democrats accusing House Republicans of playing politics with the city’s budget.

D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton blasted Republicans on the House floor Oct. 14 for bringing the bill to a vote without trying to negotiate with Democrats and the White House, risking a second veto of the bill. The bill was passed by a vote of 211-205, mostly along partisan lines.

"I am supposed to get up here and say to Democrats, ‘Vote no.’ You are supposed to get up here and say to Republicans, ‘Vote yes.’ Big exercise. Big ritual for you. Serious business for the more than half a million people I represent," Norton scolded her colleagues during House floor debate.

A statement issued by the White House budget office said President Bill Clinton’s advisers would recommend the bill in its current form be vetoed because "the new bill makes virtually no significant improvements from the vetoed bill." The president vetoed the first budget bill Sept. 28, objecting to the "social riders" attached to the bill.

"It’s unheard of to take a bill to the floor without taking it to the president who had vetoed it and try to work out a compromise," Norton said in an interview afterward.

Rep. Ernest Istook, R-Okla., latched onto Initiative 59 early in the debate, saying, "the president and my friends on the other side of the aisle want to go ahead and surrender in the national war against drugs." Initiative 59, passed by 69 percent of D.C. voters last fall, would legalize the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes.

Despite the fact that the budget bill came to the floor under a rule that would not allow amendments to be made to it, Rep. James P. Moran, D-Va., tried to offer compromises to the bill. He said if Republicans would remove the riders that prohibit the District from spending its own money to pursue voting rights in Congress and fund needle exchange programs, the bill would be acceptable to Hill Democrats.

Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., took the opportunity to turn the argument back to the medical marijuana issue. He asked Moran whether he would let stand language that would prohibit the District from enacting the initiative if the voting rights and needle exchange riders were removed. Moran would not commit to Barr’s suggestion.

Norton said that after the vote was taken, Republican leaders assured her that negotiations on a compromise would begin. She called that news an encouraging sign that a compromise may be reached soon on a budget bill that the president will sign.

The Senate, meanwhile, passed its own version of the D.C. budget Oct. 15 that Norton’s office called a "significantly improved version" of the House bill. The Senate version, passed by unanimous consent, would allow the city’s lawyers to review and comment on the private voting rights lawsuit and to brief the city council on the status of the suit. The Senate version also includes amended language that would allow private clinics and organizations to continue spending private funds for needle exchange programs. The Senate bill still bans the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes and caps salaries for members of city council.

The legislative process now has both bills heading back to another House-Senate conference committee to work out differences. Since the 2000 fiscal year began Oct. 1, the city government has been funded at fiscal 1999 levels under a "continuing resolution" passed by Congress that is due to expire Oct. 21.

Copyright 1999, The Common Denominator