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Defiant District of Columbia to stay open despite federal shutdown

By Ian Simpson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. government offices from the Internal Revenue Service to the national parks may be headed for a midnight shutdown amid a congressional budget battle, but the District of Columbia will remain open.

The semi-autonomous capital city's mayor, Vincent Gray, has declared all 32,000 public workers essential, a break from prior practice that means they cannot be ordered home if the federal government shuts down.

Even though the District of Columbia gets some federal funding, most of its budget comes from its own taxes. But under the Constitution, Congress ultimately has control of the District, and it has been treated as a federal agency during a federal shutdown.

Gray, a Democrat, vowed on Sunday to keep police officers on the beat, garbage trucks rolling and driver registration offices open, as part of a long-running fight to get more autonomy for the city's 632,000 residents.

"We have balanced our budget for 18 consecutive years and have well over a billion dollars in the bank," Gray said in his weekly radio address. "Yet we cannot spend our own money to provide our residents with the services they've paid for unless we get permission from a Congress that can't even agree to pay its own bills."

A District of Columbia memo released on Monday said officials would tap contingency reserve funds to keep operations running.

"The city will be open as usual using contingency funds," a spokeswoman for Gray said.

A million federal workers face furloughs after midnight if Congress cannot break a partisan deadlock over the Affordable Care Act, the healthcare reform that is President Barack Obama's signature domestic achievement.

"TAXATION WITHOUT REPRESENTATION"

Gray's declaration came as the District of Columbia has increasingly chafed at its lack of self-government. Congress has to approve the District's budget for local taxes, and its sole representative in Congress has no vote.

District voters in April approved a charter amendment giving the 68-square-mile (176-square-km) capital more autonomy over its own spending. Gray also has spearheaded an effort for statehood that included having Obama's inaugural limousines carry District license plates with their official slogan, "Taxation Without Representation."

The Office of Management and Budget, which is handling preparations for a shutdown, has not said how it will treat the District's declaration. The move could be interpreted as violating a federal law barring federal spending when there is no congressional appropriation.

OMB officials did not respond to requests for comment.

But Representative Darrell Issa, the head of House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which would likely head any investigation into possibly illegal activity by the District, has shrugged off the move.

"I rather doubt that Congress would take punitive actions against the District of Columbia for keeping their personnel on," he told Roll Call newspaper last week.

(Reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Scott Malone and Leslie Adler)

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