The House District Committee voted yesterday to uphold the D.C. City Council's passage of a bill that would reform the city's patchwork of sexual assault laws and legalize most homosexual acts among consenting adults.
Although the action was a setback for a coalition of groups opposing the bill, ranging from local citizen and civic federations to the Rev. Jerry Falwell's conservative national Moral Majority, the door remains open for their congressional allies to continue their push for a veto on the House floor and in the Senate.
Despite yesterday's 8-to-3 rejection by the District Committee of the resolution to overturn the council bill, the D.C. Home Rule Charter permits the resolution's sponsor to ask the full House to ignore the committee action and seek a vote on the floor. An aide to Rep. Philip M. Crane (R-Ill.), the sponsor, said Crane plans to make such a move, probably next week.
Also next week, a Senate Governmental Affairs subcommittee will hear testimony and possibly vote on an identical measure, sponsored by Sen. Jeremiah Denton (R-Ala.).
To veto most council-passed legislation, both chambers of Congress must adopt a resolution of disapproval, but when council legislation would amend the city's criminal code, as the sexual assault bill would do, only one house must do so.
Only once in 6 1/2 years of limited home rule has Congress vetoed a council act. That was in 1979, when it killed a bill opposed by the State Department that would have severely restricted the city's power to regulate the location of foreign government chanceries.
The sexual assault bill, in addition to redefining rape and other sexual crimes and revamping the penalties for violations, would decriminalize a number of heterosexual and homosexual acts, including sodomy, among consenting persons at least 16 years old. Based on model national legislation, it was widely supported by gay rights groups and women's organizations.
The total bill generally is aimed at broadening criminal penalties for sexual assault and diminishing penalties for sex between consenting parties.
It also drew outspoken opposition from such groups as the D.C. Federation of Civic Associations, the D.C. Federation of Citizens Associations, the Moral Majority and the D.C. Baptist Ministers Conference. Catholic Archbishop James A. Hickey also attacked the bill, but has not joined the campaign to seek a congressional veto.
Spearheading opposition to the effort to veto the legislation is a newly formed coalition, Citizens for Home Rule, composed of leaders of civil rights, religious and citizen groups. Its spokesman, Joe Tom Easley, a law professor, said the group is enlisting support from conservative as well as liberal organizations.
Testifying during the two-hour District Committee session that preceded yesterday's vote, D.C. Mayor Marion Barry contended that citizens who are seeking a veto "are in the minority." He called the vote a victory for home rule.
The testimony and discussion contained few hints of the emotions evoked by the bill. Rather the hearing focused narrowly on whether the council, by passing the measure, had exceeded its legal authority, and whether there was an overriding federal interest in the legislation.
Citing precedents, Rep. Ronald V. Dellums (D-Calif.), the committee chairman, ruled out testimony on the substance of the sexual assault bill itself, although two of its opponents -- Reps. Thomas J. Bliley (R-Va.) and Romano L. Mazzoli (D-Ky.) -- raised questions about some provisions. Bliley contended that the thousands of visitors to the nation's capital constituted a strong federal interest in the legislation.
Voting against the veto resolution were Dellums, Del. Walter E. Fauntroy (D.C.) and Reps. Fortney H. Stark (Calif.), Mickey Leland (Texas), William H. Gray (Pa.), Michael D. Barnes (Md.), Mervyn M. Dymally (Calif.), all Democrats, and Stewart B. McKinney (R-Conn.). Supporting the measure were Bliley, Mazzoli and Marjorie Holt (R-Md). Stanford E. Parris (R-Va.) was absent and did not vote.