House Republicans on Tuesday passed a bill, by a vote of 238 to 183, that would prevent the District from using local tax dollars to subsidize abortion services for low-income women.
When the GOP announced the bill last week, Democrats vowed to fight it and decried federal interference with a local issue.
But on the House floor, just three Democratic members of Congress — and the District’s nonvoting delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton — stood up on behalf of the city.
Although the Senate has never passed the bill, the vote was an ominous sign that the District could become an afterthought as Congress considers targeting laws regulating guns, assisted suicide and marijuana in the nation’s capital.
The stakes are particularly high for the District this year, as it cannot rely on a Democratic presidential veto. Republican President Donald Trump has said he would sign a bill blocking federal funding for abortion, known as the Hyde Amendment.
Norton downplayed concerns that the abortion bill would ever become permanent.
“This bill always bothers the hell out of me and by now it shouldn’t,” she said after the vote. “It’s an annual bill that always comes up as almost the first ideological bill of the Congress, timed to the March for Life. It has never become law.”
The bill came up for a vote Tuesday in time for abortion opponents’ annual march on the mall.
One of the speakers will be Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.), the House sponsor of the bill, who noted that congressional authority puts the city’s laws in play like nowhere else. Otherwise, he said, he would go after the states, too.
“We do have a constitutional jurisdiction,” he said. “The children here are just as important as children everywhere. If we could reach states, I would be doing it. This bill would have had it in there.”
On the floor, he spoke beside a sign that read, “Hyde Amendment has saved 2 million lives #WhyWeMarch”.
Although he did not cite a specific path to reach the 60 votes necessary to pass the measure in the Senate, Smith said he was optimistic.
“We have a new president who will sign it,” he said. “I think there’s a growing chorus of pro-lifers, not diminishing. We’re going to find some ways of getting this to the president’s desk.”
In addition to Norton, only Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.) and Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) specifically advocated for the District during debate on the bill. Raskin’s district is anchored by Montgomery County.
“A few days ago millions of Americans made history by marching for freedom and equality against an administration that keeps threatening to grab women by their privacy rights,” said Raskin, who is on leave from his job as a constitutional law professor.
In D.C., he said, “this extreme legislation constitutes a special assault on liberty.”
The bill could make permanent the Hyde amendment, which some members noted is already effectively the law because it is attached to annual appropriations bills.
In addition to blocking federal Medicaid dollars from funding for abortion, the bill says plans associated with the Affordable Care Act — or the program Republicans come up with to replace it — cannot cover abortion.
The bill would have a more dramatic effect in the nation’s capital. It would make permanent a prohibition on the District spending its own locally raised tax revenue — as 17 states now do — to subsidize abortions.
Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), whose district spans Fairfax, Arlington and Alexandria, said the “completely crazy” bill flies in the face of the Republican idea that the federal government should have less — not more — authority of local issues.
“It’s just not right,” he said. “We need to do the best possible job to make sure they don’t get to 60 votes in the Senate.”
Beyer said he did not speak on the floor because Democrats tapped members from relevant committees, even though Democrats ran out speakers before their time expired.
Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), whose district includes Fairfax and Prince William counties, submitted remarks opposing the bill but those did not mention the District.
“I think we gain more political traction broadening the issue to women’s rights, not just an issue of D.C. control,” he said. “This is about women’s rights everywhere.”
Norton offered an unsuccessful amendment to Smith’s bill that would have allowed the District to spend its local funds on abortion services for low-income women.
Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), one of five co-sponsors of the amendment, submitted it Monday night in a committee meeting. Norton had a scheduling conflict.
D.C. Major Muriel E. Bowser’s chief of staff, John Falcicchio, said the mayor’s office welcomed support from those who did stand up and defend the District.
He said that since the bill was introduced last week, the mayor’s office had been “consulting with allies both inside and outside of Congress on how to best defend the interests of the District.”
Council member David Grosso, (I-At large) said he believed antiabortion groups were saving their energy for a series of votes in the Senate, where if Democrats stick together, they should be able to defeat the bills targeting abortion rights, including the one limiting access in the District.
“My No. 1 ask of Congress is the same as the mayor said the other day, to leave us alone,” Grosso said. “ I think that is the appropriate ask, and it’s consistent with the congressional philosophy of states’ rights — but for D.C. they just seem to want to make us a little petri dish and experiment.”