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If any would-be challengers to Rep. Darrell Issa, a California Republican, want to use the old chestnut that the incumbent congressman has “gone Washington,” they would have done well to listen to District officials sing Issa’s praises in recent days.

Just listen to Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry, who says he was “shocked” by Issa’s initial support for the District’s bid for more autonomy but now regards it as routine. “Now I consider him a friend,” Barry tells LL.

Talk about an odd friendship. Issa is best known on a national level for tiffs with the New York Times and using his perch at chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform to needle President Barack Obama at every turn. Barry is, well, you all know what Barry’s best known for.

But such is the strange world of politics: Issa is quickly and quietly becoming the District’s best friend on home rule issues, earning the respect and admiration of the city’s top elected officials in the process.

The love affair started at a House hearing in May, when Issa signaled his intent to push a bill that would cut the strings between the District’s local budget and the federal government. The hearing came a few weeks after a possible federal government shutdown had threatened the District’s ability to spend its own money to maintain normal services, highlighting the city’s need for budget autonomy.

Issa followed through with proposed legislation last week that would give the District essentially everything it wanted in terms of budget autonomy. But there was a catch: The bill would have prevented the city from spending its own money on abortions for low-income women. (The budget agreement that avoided the shutdown in the spring has the same restriction. And Congress has blocked the District from spending its own money on abortions for most of the last two decades.)

Mayor Vince Gray, D.C. Council Chairman Kwame “Fully Loaded” Brown, and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton waited a couple days before rejecting Issa’s proposal because of the abortion language, but they all did their best to praise Issa at every turn—not the usual play from District Democrats who’ve been scoring political points all year by protesting the city’s colonial status.

“It was an agonizing decision. And first of all I want to thank Chairman Issa for keeping his word,” Gray said at a news conference last week. “He’s one of the few that has stepped up and tried to do something about this problem.”

Norton tells LL, “Darrell Issa has been a friend for a long time.” She says that after Issa launched an investigation earlier this year into minor mayoral candidate Sulaimon Brown’s allegations that Gray’s campaign had improperly given him money and promised him a job, she asked Issa to back off and let the D.C. Council investigate. While Issa didn’t take that advice, Norton notes that his committee didn’t go full bore and subpoena witnesses or hold public hearings. And at a brief discussion during Issa’s committee hearing, Norton praised his budget autonomy bill as a “mighty leap forward.”

For his part, Issa actually appeared to agree with the District officials that he shouldn’t move his bill forward with the abortion language, noting that there could have been more amendments to the bill restricting the District’s use of local money on programs disliked by social conservatives. He told his colleagues he didn’t want any surprises and wanted to know up front what possible amendments were coming before going ahead with the bill. He also indicated that he thought there was a way to work around the abortion issue that both sides could live with, then pledged to make sure the District gets budget autonomy.

“I will keep the light on this issue until we have a law,” he said during a committee meeting.

Issa’s support for budget autonomy isn’t coming totally out of left, er, right field. Issa was one of only 22 Republicans to break ranks and vote to give the District a voting representative in the House in 2007. His spokesman declined to comment, but told the Post last year that Issa “wants to still try to work and find a way for the people of D.C. to have voting representation in the House of Representatives.” (Issa has, though, made clear that he doesn’t support statehood for the District.)

That a conservative Republican has the motivation to do something about the District’s budget autonomy and is in a position to push the bill forward is a lucky break for the city’s officials, especially Norton. When Newt Gingrich was speaker of the House in the 1990s, Republicans were irked by Barry’s return to power from prison and the city’s dismal finances, and viewed the District as their own social studies experiment kit. After President Obama won the 2008 election—although Democrats controlled both the Senate and House—the best the District could get was a rejected voting-rights proposal that would have gutted the city’s gun laws. And when Republicans and Democrats were at an impasse on budget spending earlier this year, it was the president who allowed a ban on the District’s abortion spending. “John, I will give you D.C. abortion,” Obama reportedly told House Speaker John Boehner. “I’m not happy about it.”

The lack of progress under a Democratic-controlled government and the president’s diss have led many to wonder whether Norton, who has been up on the Hill for the last 20 years, is really the District’s most effective advocate. If the GOP House passed a budget autonomy bill, though, that could make people forget many of Norton’s perceived missteps—and would be a much-needed boost for the District’s embattled mayor.

But that’s a big if, and the uncertainty surrounding Issa’s ability to pull off a budget autonomy bill that’s acceptable to the District but still gets past social conservatives in the House has some wondering if the city shouldn’t have shown more enthusiasm for the initial proposal.

Tom Davis, a former Republican Congressman from northern Virginia and long-time District ally, told the Associated Press after city leaders rejected the bill that they “need to learn to take some victories.” Davis tells LL he didn’t mean to sound so critical, but that the District ought to try and get budget autonomy passed and then cut whatever strings are attached later. “If you can move the ball down the ten yard line, do it,” Davis says.

And Barry, who probably knows the art of the deal better than anyone in city government, agrees. After Issa’s bill was proposed, Brown met with councilmembers in private to get their take. According to multiple sources, Barry was in favor of taking the deal and raising private money to pay for any abortions for low-income women that the District couldn’t legally fund. Barry tells LL he’s disappointed that the details of a private meeting would be leaked to a reporter, and declined to say what he told Brown. But he adds that a lot of his colleagues don’t understand just how important budget autonomy is.

“It’s an institution whose time is come,” Barry says.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

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