District rights find surprise ally: Obama

President Obama has become a surprising proponent of Washington voting rights in recent months, a sharp turnaround from last spring, when he offered to cede them to the GOP during budget talks to avoid a government shutdown.

“I think that there have been real attempts to respond to the District. In other words, the District believes it has been heard by the president,” Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) told The Hill.

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Norton said Obama has stepped up to the plate on behalf of the District in the months following his promise to House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to cede D.C. funding for abortions to move budget talks further along.

“John, I will give you D.C. abortion,” Obama told Boehner earlier last year, angering local residents and sparking a string of protests.

But later, Obama “asked the Congress to give the District full-year spending authority so we wouldn’t have to close down,” Norton said, referring to the administration’s fiscal 2012 continuing resolution request.

She added that Obama also opposed a rider in the fiscal 2012 House appropriations bill preventing the District from spending local funds on abortion services. 

“The reason he opposed it … was because it undermines the principle of states’ rights and D.C. home rule,” Norton said.

Norton noted that she spoke with the president during a Congressional Black Caucus meeting last year, during which she apprised him of her concerns regarding District rights. Obama later sent two “high-level” officials to Norton’s office, where she updated them further on District issues.

“I spoke quite candidly with the president, and believe he’s been responsive to all the issues that came out, that disappointed us at that time,” she said.

Ilir Zherka, executive director of voting-rights group D.C. Vote, also recognized Obama’s increasing efforts on behalf of the District, but said he still sees room for improvement.

“The administration has definitely gone out of its way to include the District of Columbia in its veto threats last year,” he said. “And the president — during an interview, I believe, in the summer — said that he will stand by the District in its fight for greater democracy and supports the District having full equality.”

But, Zherka added, referring to the president’s eventual approval of the abortion rider in the House appropriations package, “I have to say that the FY2012 budget fight was resolved in a way that, from our perspective, wasn’t completely satisfactory.

“There weren’t a lot of social riders in that budget imposed except for an abortion rider on the district’s budget, and the administration agreed to it.

“I think it’s great the president has done what he said and that he is personally very supportive, and the administration fought back efforts to add additional riders. But one rider is one rider too many … The president would not have allowed Congress to oppose a single rider selectively on any other jurisdiction in America.”

Ensuring autonomy by wresting the District’s budget authority from the federal government has and will remain a top priority, Zherka said.

“We need to get to a place in American politics where the District’s budget is beyond the reach of people in Congress,” he said. “We would love for the president to lead us there; he has not done so yet.”

In response, the White House acknowledged Obama’s recent support of District rights, but more vitally, confirmed his stance on District budget autonomy.

“The people of D.C. deserve to have control over their own local affairs,” a White House official wrote in an email. “The president continues to be an unequivocal supporter of voting rights, home rule and budget autonomy for the District of Columbia.”