The mayor of Washington warned Wednesday that residents could face a health crisis if Congress fails to release the capital's funds in the midst of the government shutdown fight.
Washington raises most of its own revenue but, as a federally administered district, it relies on Congress to green-light spending.
Nine days into the federal shutdown, lawmakers are split on what to do, leaving the District of Columbia facing depleted reserves that might soon force the city to go without services like trash collection.
"Unforseen problems that are unique to the district are now surfacing," Mayor Vincent Gray told a crowd on the grounds of the US Capitol.
Such problems, he said, will "directly compromise the health, safety and welfare of residents and visitors."
The frustration boiled over in extraordinary fashion when Gray angrily confronted Democratic senators on the steps of the US Capitol, demanding they allow Washington to pay its bills and keep municipal services running in the city of 630,000 people.
"We're not a department of the federal government," Gray said."Set us free to do like other Americans ... If this is a democracy, now is the time to show it."
With cameras rolling, and chants of "Free DC! Free DC!" in the background, the mayor entered into a tense discussion with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who has refused to bring a vote on a House-passed bill that would free up Washington's funding.
"I'm on your side, don't screw it up, OK?" reporters overhead Reid tell Gray.
With government shuttered, House Republicans have passed several bills aimed at piecemeal funding of parts of government.
Senate Democrats reject the approach, saying all of government should be re-opened.
Gray, a Democrat, has found unlikely allies in his quest: Republican lawmakers.
Republican House government oversight committee chairman Darrell Issa told the crowd that the city has taken to picking up trash in the federal parks that dot Washington.
Failure to do so would result in "real sanitation and rodent problems in the District," Issa said.
The awkwardness of the Capitol confrontation served to highlight the precarious position Washingtonians find themselves in.
They have no representation in the Senate, their delegate to the House of Representatives can not vote, and they do not hold their own city's purse strings.
It is, as Washington's lone congressional delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton said, a "crisis that is quickly enveloping the capital city and becoming our worst nightmare."
The city is dipping into a reserve fund to pay bills, but Norton, her voice breaking, warned: "We serve notice today that the district is running out of funds to keep a big city running."
"It is shameful now to hold the city's local funds to make a federal point," she added.