WASHINGTON (CBSDC/AP) — Washington’s mayor confronted Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on the steps of the Capitol Wednesday about the federal shutdown that has imperiled the city government, eliciting a terse reply from his fellow Democrat.
Mayor Vincent Gray and his allies in the House of Representatives blame Senate Democrats and the White House for failing to authorize the city to spend its local tax dollars during the shutdown, a step that was taken during the last protracted federal shutdown in 1995.
After pleading the city’s case before reporters and hundreds of supporters, Gray walked across a plaza to the steps of the Capitol, where Senate Democrats were holding their own news conference urging Republicans to end the shutdown. Gray then stood next to Reid.
The mayor pressed his case with Reid after the news conference ended, and Reid told Gray, “I’m on your side. Don’t screw it up, OK?”
Gray said he did not know what Reid meant by the remark, and he said he would seek a formal meeting with the majority leader. The mayor’s staff has been in frequent contact with Reid’s office, but no meeting has been scheduled.
The District of Columbia is barred from spending local tax dollars without approval from Congress, meaning that the city has to shut down if the federal government does. Gray has been using emergency funds to keep the city running, but that money is expected to be exhausted by next week. Services for the elderly and disabled would be imperiled if the money ran out, and the district’s charter schools may have to close if they don’t receive a quarterly payment due next week, Gray said.
The Republican-led House approved a bill last week that would allow the city government to keep running, but Senate Democrats and the White House have objected to funding the government on a piecemeal basis. Gray argued that the city should not be treated like the other federal agencies that House Republicans have attempted to fund because there are no federal tax dollars at issue.
Reid blamed Republicans for the district’s plight. Asked whether he would free the city’s budget, the Nevada Democrat said, “Don’t talk to us; talk to the Republicans. They’re the ones objecting to it.”
In 2011, Gray was arrested outside the Capitol as he and other city leaders protested a federal budget deal that took away the district’s ability to spend money on abortions for poor women. Some questioned the mayor’s tactics then in dealing with Congress.
While the mayor has a cordial relationship with Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., a California Republican who chairs the committee that oversees the district, city leaders have little clout on Capitol Hill, especially since Republicans took control of the House in 2011. Issa’s committee has approved a bill that would allow the city to spend its own money without congressional approval — in part to avert the situation the city faces now — but the bill hasn’t made it to the House floor.
Gray’s spokesman, Pedro Ribeiro, blamed the district’s lack of representation in Congress for the mayor’s inability to influence Senate Democrats, and he said the mayor meant no disrespect when he approached Reid.
“We have no voice in the Senate. We have a voice in the House who doesn’t even have the right to vote,” Ribeiro said, referring to the city’s nonvoting delegate. “Sometimes you’ve got to knock on the door and say, ‘Excuse me.’”
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