Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and Rep. William Dannemeyer (R-Calif.) introduced a joint resolution in Congress yesterday to disapprove legislation passed by the D.C. City Council that would prohibit insurance companies from denying coverage to persons who test positive for exposure to the AIDS virus.
Congress has overturned bills approved by the City Council twice since the advent of home rule 12 years ago. It rejected legislation to prevent the location of chanceries in certain parts of the city in 1979 and overturned revisions in the city's sexual assault laws in 1981.
Dannemeyer and others asserted that the District bill would make the city a magnet for persons exposed to AIDS and raise insurance premiums for the general public. The representative said the AIDS insurance issue raises the question of "whether or not we are going to equate the homosexual life style on a par with the heterosexual life style. That is the struggle."
Helms said in a statement that the legislation is an "obvious injustice" because it gives special treatment to AIDS-exposed homosexuals over others who are exposed to other serious health risks.
"The truth is the so-called homosexual rights crowd has snookered the entire District of Columbia into footing the bill to provide special treatment for those who are at a health risk because of AIDS," Helms said.
The joint resolution, which was supported in a news conference yesterday by members of the Moral Majority and other family-oriented and church groups, drew strong condemnation from D.C. officials, several of whom charged interference with the city's self-government rights.
D.C. City Administrator Thomas Downs took issue with Helms, saying, "We find it outrageous that a United States senator would suggest that the entire District of Columbia community has been snookered by anyone. The citizens of the District of Columbia are perfectly capable of making up their own mind about issues."
The resolution, which must be passed by both chambers to go into effect, appears to face an uphill fight in the committees to which it will be referred -- the House District Committee and the District subcommittee of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee.
The D.C. legislation approved this month prohibits insurers from denying coverage to anyone on the basis of a positive test showing exposure to the AIDS virus and prevents companies from charging higher rates to them for a five-year period. In addition, the measure would ban companies from using factors such as age, sex, marital status or sexual preference in deciding whether to provide coverage.
While similar laws have been passed in Wisconsin and California, the D.C. legislation appears to offer the broadest protection to those who have been exposed to AIDS but who have not developed the illness. Since 1980, there have been 388 AIDS cases reported in the District and 233 deaths from the disease.
The prospects for passage of the resolution of disapproval, according to Paul Weyrich, the president of the Free Congress Research Foundation, hinge on whether it is "bottled up" by opponents in the House and Senate committees. He challenged leaders in both chambers to "let the bill come to a vote."
John Gnorski, minority staff director of the House District Committee, said he believes the committee would kill the resolution because its members are not inclined to interfere with D.C. legislation unless it appears to conflict with the Constitution or violate a clear federal interest.
Dannemeyer, however, noted that House members could force the resolution out of the District Committee if a majority of members sign a petition to do so. In the Senate, he said, the resolution could bypass the committee under Senate rules that would allow its passage as a rider to an unrelated bill.
The insurance industry, which had lobbied heavily to defeat the bill before the City Council, appeared to steer clear yesterday of the move by Helms and Dannemeyer. Rob Bier, a spokesman for the American Council of Life Insurance, said that while the industry still opposes the bill, "The proper venue for pursuing that is the judiciary, not the Congress. We respect home rule."
Council Chairman David A. Clarke, in a prepared statement, said there is "no federal interest" in the legislation and described the move by Helms and Dannemeyer as a ploy by "conservative interests" to find a platform.
The Rev. Cleveland Sparrow, chairman of the local chapter of the Moral Majority, warned, meanwhile, that the city had unwittingly set the stage for a rush of AIDS-exposed persons here.
"The provisions of this law guarantees the District of Columbia will become a mecca for people who test positively for AIDS exposure elsewhere in the nation, causing insurance premiums to increase for all people in Washington, D.C., and may force the legitimate insurance companies to relocate," Sparrow said at yesterday's news conference. He was accompanied by Charles E. Judd, national executive vice president of the Moral Majority.
Steve Smith, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Washington Committee on AIDS Issues, rejected as "absurd . . . the idea that people are going to move from one part of the country to another to buy insurance."