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Congress Looks to Act on Blocking D.C. Bills

Black introduced a resolution Monday to block a D.C. bill. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Congress has some more time to deal with two District of Columbia bills that have caused some backlash from lawmakers, but the clock is ticking.  

The two bills in question are the Reproductive Health Non-Discrimination Act and the Human Rights Amendment Act, which the D.C. government approved in January. Some Republican lawmakers say the bills violate religious freedom and introduced disapproval resolutions in the House and Senate aimed at blocking the bills. As with any D.C. law, the bills were sent to Congress for a 30-day review period, during which time a law can be rejected by a resolution that passes both chambers and is signed by the president. The D.C. Council Legislative Information System originally projected the period would end Friday, but on Tuesday the council indicated its system did not account for the recent recess, so the real deadline is at the beginning of May, likely May 2.  

With an approaching deadline, congressional lawmakers are working to ensure that they have enough time to block the two bills. While the Senate committee has not yet taken up the resolutions for consideration, the House took matters into its own hands.  

Late Monday, Rep. Diane Black, R-Tenn., introduced a resolution of disapproval aimed at the reproductive health bill, which seeks to prohibit employer discrimination based on reproductive health decisions. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee is set to mark up the resolution Thursday, to the chagrin of Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C.  

"If Congress wants to try and strike down our local law, the very least the District of Columbia is entitled to is an open hearing,” Norton said in a statement. “Instead, with little notice and no hearing, the disapproval resolution seeks not only to undermine the democratic will of D.C. voters, but also the constitutional rights of men and women to privacy concerning their most personal matters."  

Oversight Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, told CQ Roll Call the lack of a hearing is due to the time crunch. "We don’t have time," Chaffetz said. "The clock is ticking. We only have 30 days plus it needs to go to the Senate. I’ve got to deal with a very quick calendar.”  

But Oversight ranking member Elijah E. Cummings, D-Md., said Democrats could have an opportunity to act in opposition during the markup. "You will end up in a position where you get a chance to make the arguments through amendments and things of that nature," Cummings said. He later added, "I think the women on our side will be — I’ve been talking to a few of them — I think they’ll be quite upset.”  

While the House is moving forward on the one disapproval resolution, the Senate is determining how to act on two resolutions currently referred to the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee. Republican Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and James Lankford of Oklahoma introduced the resolutions on March 18.  

One is aimed at the reproductive health bill and the other is aimed at the Human Rights Amendment Act, which is an attempt to undo a 1989 congressional action that allowed religious educational institutions to “deny, restrict, abridge, or condition” funds, school facilities and services from gay groups. Opponents say the bill forces religious schools to recognize groups that do not align with the schools’ beliefs.  

Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Ron Johnson, R-Wis., would not say Tuesday whether he personally agrees with the two disapproval resolutions or whether the committee would take up the resolutions.  

“We’re actually going to be talking to leadership and we’ll be deciding later,” Johnson said. When asked about the impending deadline, he said, “That’s one of the reasons I have to talk to leadership in terms of any chance of getting floor time.”  

Because these two acts do not alter the D.C. criminal code, they do not qualify for an expedited committee discharge process outlined in the Home Rule Act, which established the D.C. Council. Therefore, it is up to the committee chairmen to decide whether the resolutions should be considered by the committee.  

However, even if the resolutions pass both chambers, it is unlikely that the president, who has voiced his support for D.C. autonomy , will sign them.  

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