WASHINGTON - District of Columbia Mayor Vincent Gray and several council members have been released from jail seven hours after they were arrested during a sit-in protesting restrictions placed upon the district as part of the federal budget deal.
Gray and others sat down and blocked the street in front of a Senate office building Monday. They chanted and shouted, "Hey, hey, no, no, those D.C. riders have got to go."
About 30 people were arrested. Six council members were arrested including Chairman Kwame Brown.
"We needed to make a statement," Gray said after his release.
He said protesters' shoelaces, ties and belts were removed while they were in jail. He said the district restrictions that were part of the budget deal reached Friday were "completely unacceptable."
Congress oversees D.C.'s budget and laws and can pull funding for programs it doesn't like during the budgeting process.
City officials say Washington was used as a pawn last week's budget bargaining, with new restrictions part of the price of a deal. Under the budget agreement reached Friday, the details of which are still uncertain, the city will likely be unable to spend city dollars on abortions for low income women. It may also be banned from spending city money on needle exchange programs believed vital to curbing the spread of HIV in the city, where the disease is considered an epidemic. Also back, a school voucher program favored by Republicans.
The news is considered a setback for the city that is unique in that it's a city government but its budget and laws are overseen by Congress. The city had enjoyed more freedom in the past four years when both the House and Senate were controlled by Democrats, the party traditionally more friendly to pleas of autonomy from the heavily Democratic city.
When Republicans took control of the House in January, the city readied for changes. Still, city leaders said they are outraged that Washington appears to have been used as a bargaining chip.
Gray said in a statement Saturday after the deal was announced that he was "angry and terribly disappointed that the District of Columbia suffered collateral damage amidst partisan bickering."
He held up a paper bill Monday before more than 150 fellow protesters and said, "The city should be able to spend its own money."
"If this isn't taxation without representation, I don't know what is," the mayor said. He and Council members, dressed in business attire, sat down in the street outside a Senate office building. Police arrested them, cuffing their hands behind them with plastic loops, and loaded them into police wagons to cheers from the crowd.
Ilir Zherka, the executive director of D.C. Vote, a nonpartisan group that lobbies for more independence for the District, said his group doesn't intend to let the budget pass this week without a fight.
"We're not going to accept that they decided to throw the District of Columbia under the bus," said Zherka, whose group is planning a rally Monday evening on Capitol Hill.
But while the news is considered a setback for the capital city and its 600,000 residents, the restrictions wouldn't be new.
The city's ability to spend money on abortions for low-income women has seesawed back and forth over the last two decades. When Democrats have controlled both houses of Congress and the presidency, in 1993 and 1994 and again in 2009 and 2010, the city has been able to spend its own money to pay for abortions for women on Medicaid. When Republicans have controlled at least one branch of government that ability has been taken away.