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North Carolina lawmakers will meet Wednesday to consider repealing bathroom bill

The North Carolina legislature met for a special session over the state's much-criticized "bathroom law," but did not repeal controversial House Bill 2. (Video: Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post)

North Carolina lawmakers will meet Wednesday for a special session to consider eliminating the state’s so-called “bathroom bill,” clearing the way for legislators to potentially drop a highly criticized measure that prompted lawsuits and cost the state jobs and tourism dollars.

This announcement came not long after the city of Charlotte abandoned a nondiscrimination ordinance Monday that helped spark the controversial statewide law, which put North Carolina at the center of a heated national debate over transgender rights.

North Carolina’s governor-elect, Roy Cooper (D), said Monday that because of Charlotte’s actions, state lawmakers would call a special session to vote on repealing the measure known as House Bill 2 (or “H.B. 2″).

The bill is best-known for its provisions restricting which restrooms transgender people can use, but it also reversed local ordinances expanding protections for LGBT people and limited some minimum-wage standards. When the Justice Department and North Carolina filed dueling lawsuits over the bill earlier this year, U.S. Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch said the fight was “about a great deal more than just bathrooms.”

In a video message Monday evening, Gov. Pat McCrory (R) said he would call the special session for Wednesday. McCrory, a former Charlotte mayor who conceded to Cooper this month, again criticized his opponents, who he said had fueled the entire debate.

“The sudden reversal with little notice after the gubernatorial election has ended sadly proves this entire issue originated by the political left was all about politics at the expense of Charlotte and the entire state of North Carolina,” he said.

McCrory and other elected officials in North Carolina who had backed the bill said it was needed to combat “government overreach” in Charlotte and protect women, comments they continued pressing on Monday. Opponents said H.B. 2 amounted to state-sanctioned discrimination, and it was criticized by a host of business groups as well as civil rights organizations.

‘Not about bathrooms’: Critics decry North Carolina law’s lesser-known elements

Cooper had said in a statement Monday morning that the Republican legislative leadership had “assured me that as a result of Charlotte’s vote, a special session will be called” to repeal H.B. 2. He praised the move to get rid of the law, which he said would “bring jobs, sports and entertainment events back and will provide the opportunity for strong LGBT protections in our state.”

The head of the Human Rights Campaign said Cooper told them he had worked out a deal with state lawmakers to scrap the bathroom bill. A spokesman for Cooper did not respond to messages seeking comment Monday.

The top Republicans in the North Carolina legislature — Sen. Phil Berger, the president pro tempore of the state Senate, and Rep. Tim Moore, speaker of the House — sharply denounced Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts and Cooper on Monday. They had particularly harsh words for Cooper, calling him “dishonest and disingenuous” in attempting “to take credit” for a possible vote on repealing the measure.

“Today Roy Cooper and Jennifer Roberts proved what we said was the case all along: their efforts to force men into women’s bathrooms and shower facilities was a political stunt to drive out-of-state money into the governor’s race,” Berger and Moore said in a joint statement.

“For months, we’ve said if Charlotte would repeal its bathroom ordinance that created the problem, we would take up the repeal” of H.B. 2, they continued. “Roy Cooper is not telling the truth about the legislature committing to call itself into session — we’ve always said that was Gov. McCrory’s decision, and if he calls us back, we will be prepared to act.”

Rep. Larry Hall, the House Democratic leader, said he believes political opposition to the bathroom bill has reached critical mass and could spur a vote to repeal it.

Hall pointed out that Democrats managed to knock off four state House Republicans, although North Carolina Republicans also defeated Democrats elsewhere and won other seats, which meant Republicans kept their supermajorities in the legislature.

“A lot of the damage has been done,” Hall said, referencing companies that opted to scrap plans to expand in the state. “We’ll never get those jobs back and those opportunities back. At least it stops the bleeding if we do this now, so that we can be competitive again.”

State lawmakers hastily passed H.B. 2 in March, following quickly on the heels of Charlotte passing its own ordinance a month earlier. The measure prompted intense anger and opposition, and businesses including PayPal and Deutsche Bank abandoned plans to expand into the state with hundreds of jobs.

Musicians including Bruce Springsteen canceled concerts, while the NBA and NCAA relocated games scheduled to be played in the state. Investors spoke out against the law, which tourism groups said was costing the state significant amounts of money. One estimate, published by Forbes, said the state lost more than $600 million in business due to the bill.

It was not immediately clear what impact the movement would have on the ongoing legal fights over the bill, although presumably a repeal would end those lawsuits. The Justice Department declined to comment about whether it would abandon its lawsuit if the bill is repealed. The American Civil Liberties Union, another group challenging the measure in federal court, said it would only know what will happen to its lawsuit once the legislature repeals H.B. 2.

North Carolina, Justice Dept. file dueling lawsuits over transgender rights

In a statement Monday, the city of Charlotte said its council “recognizes the ongoing negative economic impact resulting from the passage of the city’s nondiscrimination ordinance and the state’s House Bill 2.”

City officials left no doubt they were acting specifically to prompt state lawmakers to act on H.B. 2. The Charlotte City Council voted Monday morning to remove its nondiscrimination ordinance from the city code, and in its statement, Charlotte “urges the state to follow immediately with a repeal of House Bill 2.”

The council voted 10-0 to pass the resolution repealing the ordinance, with one member absent, a city spokeswoman said. However, the repeal resolution includes language stating that it will become invalid if H.B. 2 is not “repealed in its entirety by December 31, 2016.”

Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts, who has previously said the city would not repeal the ordinance, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.

Federal judge says UNC can’t enforce North Carolina’s transgender bathroom restrictions

“Governor-elect Cooper has briefed us on a deal he brokered with state lawmakers to reach a complete and total repeal” of H.B. 2, Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement. H.B. 2 “is precisely why North Carolinians went to the polls and ousted Governor McCrory last month. It’s time to chart a new course guided by the state’s values of dignity and respect, not discrimination and hate — and to ensure nondiscrimination protections exist in cities, towns and across the state of North Carolina.”

While the ACLU of North Carolina is “encouraged” that H.B. 2 could be repealed, “it never should have come at the cost of protections for LGBT people living in Charlotte,” said Sarah Gillooly, policy director for the group. Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, echoed that, calling it disappointing “that Charlotte’s commonsense ordinance was repealed to get the General Assembly to even consider a full repeal” of H.B. 2.

“Completely repealing [H.B. 2] is only the first step lawmakers must take to repair the harm they have done to their own constituents,” Keisling said in a statement. “Even after it is repealed, there will be a long way to go.”

North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory (R) defended the state's controversial bathroom law on May 9, asking Congress to weigh in. (Video: Reuters)

As attorney general, Cooper was a vocal opponent of H.B. 2 and refused to defend it. The possible movement on H.B. 2 comes as Cooper and Republican lawmakers are facing off in a bitter, high-profile post-election fight over how much power he will actually get to exert when he takes the governor’s mansion.

Republicans in the state have introduced and quickly passed bills that would limit his power, including curtailing his influence in the courts and requiring state Senate approval for Cabinet picks. Cooper has blasted these moves as “unprecedented” and “ominous,” while his opponents have argued they are putting in place needed reforms meant to let them enact checks and balances. The governor-elect has threatened legal action, vowing: “They will see me in court.”

Amber Phillips contributed to this report, which was first published at 11:54 a.m. and updated numerous times with new information. This story has also been corrected; it originally stated that Democrats defeated four House Republicans in districts a federal court ruled were unconstitutionally gerrymandered. 

Further reading:

A ‘power grab’? The political drama unfolding in North Carolina right now

Charlotte set off the fight over the ‘bathroom law.’ Now it’s dealing with the fallout.

North Carolina’s governor had said he wanted bathroom law partially changed after backlash

PayPal abandons plans to open facility in Charlotte because of LGBT law