DC Alcohol Bill Sponsor Complains About Senators’ ‘Interference’

Dec 10, 2008 11:50am

ABC News’ Steven Portnoy Reports: Members of Congress are locking horns with Washington DC lawmakers over how late bars should stay open during Inauguration Week in the nation’s capital.

On Tuesday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Sen. Robert Bennett (R-Utah) wrote to DC’s mayor and council chairman, asking for a reversal of the law the council passed last week allowing bars and nightclubs to continue serving alcohol until 5 a.m. while millions of visitors are in town for the inauguration.

"We are deeply concerned that the plan approved by the City Council could seriously strain law enforcement resources that need to be focused on the large crowds and security requirements of the Inaugural and its impact on the City," the senators wrote.

Council member Jim Graham, who represents the nightlife-driven Adams Morgan section of DC, initially sponsored the bill, but was one of four council members to vote against an amended version last week, balking at the inclusion of nightclubs — rather than just bars — in the final bill. 

But when informed of the senators’ objection by a reporter, the longtime DC legislator became sharply defensive of his city’s right to determine how long its bartenders serve booze.

"You always want to be respectful of the views of public figures, and I am. But this is a local matter," Graham said. "How late we keep our bars open — I don’t think that’s something I want U.S. senators deciding."

Graham called the push by the two members of the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies a "classic example of interference" by the federal government into the city’s affairs "that really has got to stop."

Actions of the city council are generally open to congressional review after they are passed. It’s a process rarely invoked, but during a 30-day period after a city law is signed by the mayor, Congress can adopt a resolution of disapproval, which, if signed by the president, would prevent the law from taking effect. 

But since the alcohol measure was passed under "emergency" conditions declared by the council, there is no automatic congressional review. Graham acknowledges that under Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution, Congress can still move to prevent the bars from staying open late, exercising its power to enact "exclusive legislation in all cases whatsoever" over the District.

"I understand the nature of their powers over the District of Columbia," Graham said. "I understand that very well."

Mayor Adrian Fenty, who — along with Graham — initially opposed the bill’s inclusion of nightclubs, reportedly had intended to sign the bill the council passed last week. 

When asked for a response to the senators’ concerns late Tuesday, the mayor’s spokeswoman offered only with this statement quoting Mayor Fenty: "My administration will do everything possible to ensure the safety and well being of residents and visitors during the inauguration period."

Spokeswoman Mafara Hobson was pressed for more on Wednesday, but would only say Fenty has yet to sign the bill.

UPDATE: After speaking with Mayor Fenty and council chairman Vincent Gray, DC council member Graham now sounds much more willing to compromise. 

"This is not your garden variety congressional interference. There is a federal interest here, when you think it through.  No question about it," Graham said.

He now suggests the city may reach agreement with the joint inaugural committee on possible limits to the expanded alcohol service. 

Graham says the mayor and council chair have been discussing this all day, as to what form this might take legislatively.

Stay tuned.

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