The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee voted along party lines Tuesday evening to strike down a D.C. bill.
Committee members voted 20-16 to approve a disapproval resolution blocking the Reproductive Health Non-Discrimination Act, which aims to prohibit workplace discrimination based on reproductive health decisions. Republicans, who voted to adopt the disapproval resolution, say it could force employers to violate their religious beliefs, while Democrats say it prevents employer discrimination based on private health decisions.
“There are important feelings on both sides of the issue but I’m pleased to see it pass with such a wide margin," Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, said after the hearing. "We have strength in numbers on the Republican side of the aisle but I hope it gets taken up by the full House. The clock’s ticking.” The committee markup was the first time in more than 20 years that the committee has taken up a D.C. disapproval resolution, participating in the formal process by which Congress can block a D.C. bill during the bill's 30-day congressional review process. Rep. Diane Black , R-Tenn., introduced the resolution on April 13. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, introduced a similar resolution in the Senate in March, but the Senate committee has yet to take it up.
The hour-and-a-half-long House markup delved into a debate about what exactly was the issue at hand: protecting local government, protecting the Constitution, preserving religious freedom, or combating discrimination.
As Rep. Steve Russell, R-Okla., delved into his argument against RHNDA, a handful of D.C. activists stood up, chanting, "D.C. votes no!" and held signs that read, "I am a not a pawn." They left the committee room after U.S. Capitol Police officers told them to do so. Two people with the group remained seated during the demonstration, but were asked to leave after Capitol Police instructed the other activists to exit. It did not appear as if these two activists participated in the disturbance, so they clashed with Capitol Police, apparently arguing that they should be able to stay in the committee room.
After refusing to leave, Adam Eidinger of the D.C. Cannabis Campaign was forcibly removed from the markup, carried out by four Capitol Police officers. According to the Capitol Police, Eidinger was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct.
As police handcuffed Eidinger in the hallway, lawmakers in the committee room were digging into a discussion about whether or not Congress should move to block this D.C. bill.
"It’s about the right to self-governance. It’s about the right of the District of Columbia and its residents to determine their own fate, whether we like it or not," said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, D-Va. “What member on either side of the aisle would welcome congressional intrusion in the jurisdiction and the government acts of your local government body? None of us would welcome that."
But Republicans argued that the act infringes upon religious liberty, giving Congress the right to intervene.
"It’s been stated — D.C., they want to rule themselves — I understand that," said Tim Walberg, R-Mich. "But we would not suffer states or local communities to simply say, we want to rule ourselves so we will do anything we want, regardless of how it violates the constitutional individual rights.”
As the discussion moved forward, a leader of one committee with oversight over D.C. expressed his discomfort with taking up the resolution.
“I’m anxiously trying to find a way to try and avoid this. And certainly, I agree with the chairman, I would prefer not to be here today debating this resolution," said Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., who heads the Government Operations Subcommittee. "Yet today the rights of many in our nation’s capital in the District of Columbia are being challenged. And Americans expect state and federal governments to respect their constitutional rights.”
With the committee's approval, the next stop for the disapproval resolution could be the House floor. Though an expedited committee procedure did not apply to the resolution because it affects D.C. civil code, the resolution does contain an expedited floor procedure. The motion to proceed on the resolution is "highly privileged and not debatable," meaning any member can call the resolution to a vote on the House floor.
“I expect it to come to the floor if we can’t get some kind of compromise with the D.C. Council and mayor," Meadows told CQ Roll Call after the markup. He said he would be open to expanding the "ministerial exception," which exempts religious groups from certain anti-discrimination laws.
"Expanding those ministerial exceptions would allow the law to stand and yet still protect the religious freedoms that our founding fathers established in this country," Meadows said. "So we’re still hopeful that we can do that. I put the probability of that happening at less than 25 percent. But it’s not zero.”
Even if it comes to a vote on the House floor and passes the chamber, the resolution's fate appears bleak in the Senate. In addition to the review period deadline, Mayor Muriel Bowser said Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., who heads the Senate committee with jurisdiction over D.C., has told her he will not bring up the resolutions.
“We’ve had previous discussions with him about it,” Bowser said after leaving a meeting with Johnson in the Hart Senate Office Building Tuesday afternoon. "He has indicated to us previously that he wasn’t interested in taking it up.”
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