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Norton Warns GOP: Don't Tread on D.C.

(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

For the first time in more than two decades, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee is set to take up a resolution aimed at blocking a D.C. bill Tuesday, to the chagrin of the District's congressional delegate.  

At issue is the Reproductive Health Non-Discrimination Act the D.C. Council approved in January, which aims to prohibit workplace discrimination based on reproductive health decisions. Conservatives say the act could force employers to act contrary to their religious beliefs, violating religious freedom. “The attack on the D.C. Reproductive Health Non-Discrimination Act, as it is called, needlessly pits reproductive freedom against freedom from discrimination," Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., said Monday at a briefing. "Employers are entitled to their religious beliefs and these beliefs and practices are protected by D.C. law. At the same time, we will not tolerate the misusing of religion to deny women and men in the District of Columbia equal opportunity under the law.”  

As with any D.C. law, the measure was transmitted to Congress for a 30-day review period. Congress can move to strike down the act during the review period by introducing a resolution of disapproval, which must pass both chambers and be signed by the president to take effect. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Rep. Diane Black, R-Tenn., have introduced resolutions of disapproval in their respective chambers. But the clock is ticking for Congress to take action, as the review period is projected to end on May 2, so the Oversight panel is set to mark up the House resolution Tuesday evening.  

On Monday, Norton said fellow Democrats will be at the markup to voice their opposition to the disapproval resolutions. "They are going to be there tomorrow. There may be amendments," she said. "They are very much offended, frankly, by this major intrusion into the reproductive matters of Americans. It’s unthinkable.”  

Democrats have been lining up behind Norton in her effort to block the resolutions. Last week, the leaders of the House Pro-Choice Caucus and the ranking members of the House Oversight and Judiciary committees issued statements condemning the resolutions. House Oversight and Government Reform ranking member Elijah E. Cummings, D-Md., said in an April 15 statement the disapproval resolutions were "a new low" for the GOP.  

Conservatives are bolstered by the support of Catholic leaders , who wrote letters to senators in March encouraging them to support Cruz's resolution. But on Monday, Glenn Northern of Catholics for Choice cautioned that the bishops do not speak for all  Catholics.  

“The bishops are trying to bully the elected representatives of the District of Columbia by urging Congress to block this law and disregard the will of D.C. residents and the D.C. Council," Northern, whose group is part of a coalition siding with Norton, said at the briefing. "But Catholics for Choice is here today to stand in solidarity with Catholics in the District and the families in the District who believe that no woman should be fired for a reproductive health decision."  

It has been five years since a D.C. disapproval resolution was introduced, and the last time the Oversight Committee actually took up a resolution was in 1992. While the resolution could move through the GOP-controlled Congress, it is unlikely President Barack Obama, who has voiced support for D.C. autonomy, would sign it. But Congress could still employ a more common tactic of attaching policy riders to appropriations bills dictating how the District can spend federal and local funds to target D.C.'s reproductive health policies.  

And some conservatives are pushing for that alternative. The Republican Study Committee, made up of conservative lawmakers, sent a letter to appropriators with jurisdiction over D.C. on March 26, encouraging them to utilize the tactic. "Should the president fail to sign a resolution of disapproval ... the committee should ensure that any Fiscal Year 2016 appropriations measure contains language that would prohibit funds to implement or carry out any rule or regulation associated with RHNDA or HRAA," they wrote.  

HRAA is the Human Rights Amendment Act, another D.C. bill conservatives argued would violate religious freedom. Cruz and Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo., introduced disapproval resolutions aimed at this act, but Norton said Monday that Oversight Committee leadership assured her the committee would not take it up.  

Despite the standoff over the two D.C. bills, Norton said she maintains a "cordial" relationship with Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, and the panel's Government Operations Subcommittee chairman, Mark Meadows, R-N.C., who head the panels with jurisdiction over D.C. Meadows is one of the resolution's 21 co-sponsors.  

“I’m very pleased with the relationship that we have with Mr. Chaffetz and with Mr. Meadows," Norton said. "As I say, we had discussions on these bills. The Republican Party is split a half dozen ways. We expected that there would be a disapproval resolution.”  

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