House votes to nix deadline for Equal Rights Amendment ratification

But prospects of passage in Senate are doubtful

Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other female Democrats celebrate on the House steps Wednesday after the vote to scrap the 1982 deadline for ERA ratification.  (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other female Democrats celebrate on the House steps Wednesday after the vote to scrap the 1982 deadline for ERA ratification. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted March 17, 2021 at 2:31pm

The House voted Wednesday to eliminate the long-passed deadline for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, but questions from Republicans about constitutionality and the tight partisan margins in the Senate make enactment doubtful.

The ERA would amend the Constitution to prohibit discrimination based on sex.

The House voted 222-204 to pass the proposal, sponsored by California Democrat Jackie Speier, which would remove the 1982 deadline for state ratification.

Democrats say that the ERA would finally enshrine equal rights for women in the Constitution and that Congress has the constitutional authority to retroactively remove the ratification deadline to add the amendment to the Constitution.

“That should send a chilling feeling in each of us that in the Constitution of the United States, women are not protected. In fact, we are the only country with a written constitution that does not prohibit discrimination based on sex. Shame on us. There can be no expiration date on equality,” Speier said on the floor Wednesday.

Four Republicans joined all Democrats to vote for the measure.

Rodney Davis of Illinois and Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey, who were among the five GOP supporters of the ERA last year, voted “no” on Wednesday.

Congressional support of the ERA in the early 1970s was widespread and bipartisan. It passed the House by a 354-24 vote and the Senate by a 84-8 vote, bipartisan tallies that are difficult to imagine for such an issue in the modern political climate.

The amendment then needed the approval of three-fourths of the state legislatures before 1979, a deadline set by Congress. More than half of the states ratified the amendment within the first year, and 35 states ratified it before 1977. Congress then extended the deadline for another three years to 1982, but no additional states voted to ratify, leaving the amendment three state legislatures short of the three-fourths requirement.

But in recent years, the ERA has gained new life. Illinois and Nevada both voted to ratify it, and in 2020, Virginia became the 38th state to do so — ostensibly reaching the required three-fourths threshold for the 28th Amendment to the Constitution.

Many Republicans stood to oppose the joint resolution Wednesday, arguing that it was unconstitutional, that women were already protected under the Constitution and that the ERA would open the door for rollbacks of anti-abortion policies.

“With this unconstitutional bill, my colleagues across the aisle are hiding behind the rhetoric of equality for women to eliminate any and all protections for unborn babies, half of which would be girls, then women, if given a chance to live,” Arizona Rep. Debbie Lesko said.

Conservatives have warned that ratification of the ERA would lead to more abortions, arguing that because abortions are exclusive to women, any restrictions on the procedure could be deemed unconstitutional under the ERA.

Minnesota Republican Michelle Fischbach articulated the common GOP position that the Fifth and 14th amendments to the Constitution already require equal protection of men and women under the law.

“To me, the ERA is unnecessary, redundant and divisive. The only thing it will do is empower the far left’s special interest groups to lead to activist litigation,” Fischbach said.

Republicans also pointed to five states — Nebraska, Tennessee, Idaho, Kentucky and South Dakota — that have rescinded their ratification of the amendment.

Senate status

There are strong advocates for the ERA in the Senate, but Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski isn’t confident there is enough support in her GOP Conference to move the amendment forward.

“On the Equal Rights Amendment, I wish that I could tell you that we had more Republicans support for that at this point in time. We continue to work on that,” she said Tuesday.

Murkowski said the concerns among Senate Republicans are similar to those voiced in the House, from questions about constitutionality to abortion and transgender rights issues.

Caroline Simon contributed to this report.