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House Votes to Block D.C. Law

Norton said the resolution was "a double whammy." (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

In a largely symbolic move, the House voted mostly down party lines late Thursday night to block a District of Columbia bill that D.C. officials say would combat workplace discrimination.  

A corps of mainly Republicans passed a joint resolution of disapproval 228-192, aimed at the Reproductive Health Non-Discrimination Amendment Act, which dictated that employers cannot discriminate against employees based on their reproductive health decisions. Conservatives argued the act could force employers to violate their religious beliefs. A handful of Democrats and Republicans, some in swing districts, broke rank with their party and voted for and against the resolution, respectively. It was the first time in nearly 25 years the entire House voted to block a D.C. law, and, for the District's delegate, the move packed a one-two punch.  

“This is a double whammy," Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., said on the floor Thursday afternoon. "The goal here is to resume the war on women. The predicate for getting to the nation’s women is the D.C. Home Rule Act. It goes after self-government and women at the same time."  

The 1973 Home Rule Act, which established the D.C. Council, lays out a formal process for Congress to strike down any D.C. law during the 30-day congressional review period by passing a joint resolution. The measure has to pass both chambers and be signed by the president.  

Despite the House's vote Thursday, the law is poised to take effect, since the review period ends Saturday and the Senate has left town. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, introduced a resolution of disapproval in the Senate in March, but it was not taken up by committee. The president also issued a veto threat Thursday afternoon for the House resolution, sponsored by Rep. Diane Black, R-Tenn.  

Although the House vote was largely symbolic, Republicans say it was necessary to show Congress rejected a law that they argue violates religious freedom.  

“We have a number of members who are concerned about this issue and the issue is one of religious liberty,” Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, said at his Thursday press conference. But the Thursday vote almost didn't happen.  

After the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee approved the resolution on April 21, Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, had yet to report it out of committee early Wednesday. A committee spokesperson said the committee was waiting on "guidance from leadership" before reporting the bill. A band of House conservatives, including members of the Republican Study Committee and the newly formed House Freedom Caucus, pushed leadership to bring the bill to a House vote, and leaders relented Wednesday afternoon.  

The chairman might also have been waiting to report the resolution due to ongoing negotiations between a member of Congress and D.C. officials. Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., who chairs the subcommittee with jurisdiction over D.C., said he was in talks with "city officials" as recently as Wednesday to try and negotiate a compromise.  

"There would be a number of us trying to solve this particular issue without having to do a disapproval resolution as recent as yesterday," Meadows said in the Speaker's Lobby Thursday. "I think if we just expand the ministerial exception in the D.C. bill, it would protect religious freedoms and yet still accomplish, I believe, the major intent of what I believe D.C. is trying to do with their law."  

The "ministerial exception" exempts religious groups from certain anti-discrimination laws, but D.C. officials argue the Human Rights Act already safeguards religious freedom. The impasse stalled negotiations, and the disapproval resolution went forward.  

Meadows also acknowledged the unlikelihood that RHNDA would actually be blocked, given the Saturday deadline.  

“I think it’s important to show the will of Congress," he said, "and I think the other aspect of that is ... it provides a benchmark for further discussions during appropriations season.”  

Meadows was referring to the more common congressional tactic to address D.C.'s social policies: attaching policy riders to spending bills, dictating how D.C. can spend local and federal funds. House conservatives have also been pushing for a rider to block funds from implementing RHNDA. But, as D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson said Thursday, it's not clear exactly how an appropriations rider would affect the act.  

“The Human Rights Act is … a protection for an individual. It’s not a government program," Mendelson said in a Thursday phone interview. “John Doe doesn’t have the right to discriminate against you. So if Congress says we can’t spend any money to implement that, what does that mean? ... It’s not clear how Congress could stop that.”  

Mendelson said he was disappointed Congress was moving forward on the disapproval resolution. "This has to do with saying to an employer it’s okay to fire somebody because of they’re having an abortion, and that’s not right,” he said of the resolution. “I think it’s, for some, mean-spirited because it’s about sanctioning discrimination.”  

Republicans were steadfast in their argument that the resolution was about protecting religious freedom, and number of GOP men and women came to the floor Thursday to make their case. On the other side of the aisle, Democrats literally lined up behind Norton — with 20 Democrats forming a line on the floor Thursday afternoon to voice their opposition. Among them was House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who said the measure was "Hobby Lobby on steroids" earlier in the day.  

All House members ultimately filed into the chamber to pass the resolution, while Norton sat in her chair on the floor, since she cannot cast a vote on House floor. But despite their delegate being unable to vote, some D.C. residents made it clear to lawmakers how they felt.  

In the middle of debate Thursday afternoon, three D.C. activists, one holding a D.C. flag, stood up in the gallery and chanted "D.C. votes no!" before being escorted out by security. The activists were arrested and charged with disruption of Congress.  

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