House Republicans inserted language into the next federal budget Wednesday that would bar the District from enforcing a local law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of whether employees have abortions or use contraception.
The law has been prized by women’s rights groups and denounced by religious organizations that have argued it could prevent churches or other groups who oppose abortion from firing an employee who seeks the procedure.
The mostly party-line vote in the House Appropriations Committee followed a vote last month by the full House to repeal the law — the first attempt to upend any D.C. law in almost 25 years.
Wednesday’s budget vote ratcheted up tension between Democratic leaders in the District and their Republican overseers on Capitol Hill. Also included in the House budget that advanced Wednesday were prohibitions, known as riders, that stop the District from regulating sales of marijuana until at least 2017, and a continuation of a measure that blocks the city from spending local tax revenue to fund abortions for low-income residents.
“Members of Congress have better things to do than continually meddle in the District’s affairs,” said Michael Czin, a spokesman for D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D). The reproductive-discrimination law “simply prohibits employers’ ability to discriminate against employees based on private health decisions,” Czin said. “It remains unclear why some would consider that to be controversial.”
Abortion rights groups went further. Sasha Bruce, head of campaigns and strategy for NARAL Pro-Choice America, called the move by House Republicans “a new, shameful low” with members “attempting to legislate hatred, bigotry and outright discrimination into law.”
Conservative Republicans, however, were unapologetic. They charged that the District was going too far, seeking to impose a liberal worldview on religious organizations that have been free since the founding of the country to hire only people who adhere to their beliefs.
Rep. Steven M. Palazzo (R-Miss.) introduced the measure. He called the District’s Reproductive Health Non-
Discrimination Amendment Act “deceivingly named.”
“It blatantly disregards the First Amendment and . . . takes unprecedented steps to supercede the religious precedents that govern the lives and businesses of the men, women and children that live and work in the District of Columbia.”
The District law broadens the definition of discrimination in the city to include an employee’s reproductive health decisions. Under the law, employers will not be able to discriminate against employees who seek contraception or family-planning services. Employers also cannot act against an employee when they know she has used medical treatments to initiate or terminate a pregnancy.
Critics have cast the effort by Congress to repeal the law as a leap beyond the Supreme Court decision last year in Hobby Lobby v. Burwell. In that case, the court said some companies can refrain from offering contraception through employee health plans.
The legislative effort to overturn the law began with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) in the days before he launched his presidential campaign.
As it morphed into a budget issue Wednesday, D.C. lawmakers and some Democrats in Congress cast the campaign as overreach by Republicans who routinely press for less federal intervention.
“The insistence on using the District of Columbia as a test subject for social policy ignores the will of the District’s residents who are U.S. citizens,” said Rep. Nita M. Lowey, (D-N.Y.). “We hear time and time again that the federal government is smothering the local community through federal overreach. . . . It’s time the majority use that sentiment when it comes to D.C.,” she said. “Let D.C. decide for D.C.”
As it had on the House floor last month, the vote became a sounding board for partisan politics on the issue of women’s reproductive rights. During the committee debate, Democrats from several states criticized the Republican amendment as an infringement of women’s rights and of privacy.
Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) also cast the Republican rider to block funding for abortions as keeping a disproportionate share of “the city’s women of color . . . in poverty.”
House Republicans on Wednesday also made clear that they were watching last week when the D.C. Council and mayor appropriated $7 billion in local tax money to test the limits of a voter-approved referendum in which residents declared more spending autonomy from Congress.
Ahead of the committee vote, congressional lawyers inserted a paragraph that said they did not recognize the results of the ballot measure as binding on Congress.
The development in the District’s “budget autonomy” fight appeared certain to complicate the efforts of the D.C. Council and Bowser. Both have asserted that a voter-approved measure in 2013 gave the city power to restructure its budget process and insulate the District from the whims of federal lawmakers regarding how the bulk of its tax money is spent.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), the District’s nonvoting member of Congress, said she was girding for more amendments from Republicans when the budget reaches the House floor.
One possibility: attempted restrictions on D.C. gun laws, which are among the strictest in the nation.
Two high-profile Republicans, Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Rep. Jim Jordan (Ohio), have introduced legislation that would undo the District’s gun laws, reverting to federal restrictions.
If embraced by Republican leaders of the House and Senate, the legislation could layer onto the federal budget a Second Amendment showdown with President Obama just two years after he failed in an attempt to win stricter gun-control laws nationwide.