Mayor Vince Gray, moments after fuming to a Capitol Hill crowd about the shutdown’s stranglehold on the District’s budget, crashed a press conference full of Senate Democrats, demanding that Majority Leader Harry Reid take up legislation allowing DC to spend its own money while the federal budget impasse drags on. Reid, backed by dozen of his instantly flustered colleagues, was not pleased by Gray’s drop-in.
Gray had been at the Capitol for his own event with DC Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, House Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa, and representatives of organizations that officials say are already missing payments because of the shutdown. The demonstration followed up on a letter Gray sent yesterday to Reid, President Obama, and House Speaker John Boehner warning that the District is running low on the $144 million emergency reserve fund it has been using to finance municipal operations since last week.
“Our money is being held hostage,” Norton said. The District has had to use contingency funds to pay for its operations and 32,000 employees during the shutdown because its budget, even the parts of it paid for with locally raised revenue, is subject to federal oversight. “This crisis is enveloping the capital city and becoming our worst nightmare,” Norton said.
In his letter yesterday, Gray warned that the District is already unable to make payments to several essential services, including Medicaid providers, Metro, and distributing homeland security grants it shares with neighboring jurisdictions like Fairfax County, which was represented by its fire chief, Richard Bowers.
House Republicans passed a bill last week permitting DC to tap its normal sources of funding, but it has been dismissed by the Senate and White House, which are opposing “piecemeal” bills that fund a single part of government rather than a comprehensive spending plan.
“This is not an appropriation, this is not the Affordable Care Act, it’s simply an item caught in the middle,” Issa, a California Republican, said. Issa also suggested that the District, which issues license plates reading “Taxation Without Representation,” might consider a new motto. “Federal government, don’t tread on me,” he offered.
Norton and Gray, both Democrats, did not hold back their criticism of the Obama administration and Senate leaders, saying DC’s budget is being held back while Democrats defend the 2010 health care law.
“We need both houses and the president to avoid further consequences,” Gray said. “We are facing what no other Americans are facing what no other Americans are facing—the loss of basic municipal services.”
Gray’s office has said the fund will last about another week and a half, after which—barring an end to the shutdown or a DC funding bill being signed into law—the city will have to start cutting back on its services, including charter school payments, building inspections, and trash pickup.
Gray and his staff said stage-bombing the Senate Democrats’ press conference was unplanned, and just the result of interfering schedules. Reid reportedly did not elaborate on his aside telling the mayor to not “screw it up,” and Gray did not get a chance to address the throng of national reporters whose Senate procedurals were flipped over by an injection of local DC politics.
After walking back, Gray said he is still waiting for an answer from Reid’s office and the White House if they will meet with him about how the District will keep running. He also said he got no response from any of the senators standing behind Reid, save Louisiana's Mary Landrieu. But he expressed little regret for crashing the press conference. “Being complacent hurts DC,” he said.