D.C. sees hope in budget autonomy push

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Local,DC,Alan Blinder

The first victory came when the presidential motorcade rolled out of the White House earlier this month. On President Obama's vehicle, the generic District of Columbia license plate was gone, replaced with one that included the city's "taxation without representation" slogan.

But now District leaders are hoping for more from Obama and a helping hand from a Congress that has resisted the city's pleas for greater independence for decades.

And so when D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District's long-serving member of the House, rolled out a package of bills last week designed to push the city's dreams of greater autonomy, advocates and officials alike said they sensed a renewed chance to get something done.

"We're at a starting point this year that is so much stronger than the last time around," said James Jones, spokesman for the prolific advocacy group DC Vote.SClBNorton did not respond to a request for comment.

In the short-term, supporters of District rights have set their sights on achieving budget autonomy -- the authority for the D.C. government to set and execute its budgets without congressional approval -- for a city that pays and receives more federal tax dollars per capita than anywhere in the nation.

"There is clearly is gridlock. There's no question about that. But we hope that there will be some momentum for budget autonomy," said Mayor Vincent Gray. "When you've got Democrats and Republicans supporting budget autonomy, it seems to me that we ought to be able to get that done."

Support from congressional Republicans, who have traditionally balked at giving D.C. more power, will be key: They hold a 33-seat majority in the House.

But some of the region's GOP heavyweights -- including Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell -- have said they'd support such a plan, potentially giving political cover to other Republicans.

District voters will also have a chance to vote on a charter amendment that would grant the city budget autonomy during an April 23 special election. Several city leaders, though, including Gray and Norton, have questioned that strategy.

But even as supporters see momentum for autonomy, they also acknowledge obstacles for other priorities, like statehood, the subject of two bills pending before Congress.

"I understand the difficulty of moving a statehood bill, but we have to have it out there to talk about," Jones said. "It's still important for the nation to know what our mark is, what we're really going for."SClBWard 3 D.C. Councilwoman Mary Cheh, who helped push Obama toward the new license plates, also said she had her doubts about the extent of Congress' willingness to act on District issues.

"I think it's quite unrealistic that we're going to get to statehood in the next Congress," she said. "But we've changed the tone and the conversation enough that it gives me hope that in due course, we'll succeed."

ablinder@washingtonexaminer.com

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