The Virginia House of Delegates dealt the Equal Rights Amendment a potentially fatal blow today, voting overwhelmingly to defeat a parliamentary maneuver designed to bring the controversial measure to the House floor.
Voting 62-to-35 without discussion, the House killed a rules change proposed by Del. Dorothy McDiarmid (D-Fairfax) that would have allowed the ERA to bypass the House Privileges and Elections Committee, where the measure has died in previous years.
That leaves supporters of the measure with little choice but to bring ERA before the committee Wednesday, where it is virtually certain to be killed. Still, supporters of the measure would not admit defeat today, saying they were hopeful that they could win the support of the state Senate and force the issue again in the House later in the session.
"This was absolutely done with total thought," said Eleanor Smeal of Fairfax County, president of the National Organization for Women, who said pro-ERA forces had wanted to place members of the House on record. "These guys have been hiding behind the procedural process for years."
The proposed constitutional amendment, which bans discrimination on the basis of sex, has been approved by 35 of the needed 38 state legislatures. It is scheduled to die this summer unless three more states approve ratification.
Today's action capped several weeks of frenzied lobbying in Richmond, with crowds of pro-ERA forces staging daily vigils on the Capitol grounds and opponents holding up signs along highway approaches to the Capitol. A half-page advertisement signed by television evangelist Jerry Falwell appeared in three Virginia newspapers today, exhorting opponents to register their feelings with the clerk of the House of Delegates. More than 200 callers jammed the clerk's telephone lines this morning.
In the end, it was Northern Virginia's 21-member House delegation that provided most of the fuel for the procedural measure, accounting for 17 of the 35 votes that were cast in its favor. Only four of the delegates from the Washington suburbs--Republicans Kenneth B. Rollins of Loudoun, Harry J. Parrish of Prince William and Gwendalyn F. Cody and Frank Medico of Fairfax--voted against McDiarmid's proposal.
Senior Democrats, led by House Speaker A.L. Philpott and Majority Leader Thomas Moss of Norfolk, were almost unanimous in their disapproval of the measure, which would have allowed certain amendments to the U.S. Constitution to be considered by the full House without first passing through the elections committee.
"These people are very reluctant to change the time-honored rules that have served this commonwealth for centuries," said Moss. "It was a bad precedent. Everyone knew it was designed for just one bill."
Today's vote was seen as a setback for Gov. Charles S. Robb, who called for the measure's ratification in his State of the Commonwealth address last month and did some lobbying on its behalf. George Stoddart, the governor's spokesman, said Robb was "disappointed, obviously, but it was not unexpected."
McDiarmid, back in the House for the first time since she was stricken a week ago with a mild case of pneumonia, reminded her colleagues that Virginia had refused to approve women's suffrage until 1964 and pleaded with them to reverse that pattern with the ERA. "May history record that courage, rather than evasion, is the hallmark of this august body," she said.
Other backers of the measure, however, chose to keep their seats rather than speak in its support. "I guess there are times when you sense that further talk will only put people off," said Del. Mary Marshall (D-Arlington).
Philpott, who had blocked consideration of the measure until today out of courtesy to the 75-year-old McDiarmid, said later that he had done nothing to help defeat the proposal. "If you find anybody that said I opened my mouth to them, you bring them to me," he told reporters.
After the vote, McDiarmid said that she was "very sad" about the outcome, but pledged to bring the measure back in some form. "It will start again and it will continue because it is right and proper that women be considered equal under the law," she said.
The Virginia legislature has considered the ERA annually for nine years, but it has never has reached the House floor. It was approved by a Senate committee two years ago, but died on the floor of that chamber on a 20-to-19 vote. As a constitutional measure it needs 21 Senate votes to pass.
Further action by ERA proponents this year could take the form of a request that the full House discharge the Privileges and Elections Committee of its responsibility to review the legislation. That approach is considered unlikely, because it, too, would be viewed as a challenge to the House's committee system.
More likely is an effort to win Senate approval for the ERA through a bill introduced by Sen. Clive DuVal (D-Fairfax). "We think we have enough votes to report it out," DuVal said today. "I think if we can pass it, it will give the House a jolt and do far more than overcome this setback."