Two lawmakers settled a weeks-long dispute Tuesday over the invitation of female witnesses to a contentious hearing on religious objections to the Obama administration’s contraception policy.
The Feb. 16 hearing, held by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, led Democrats to accuse Republicans of waging a “war on women” by opposing the administration’s decision to force insurance companies to provide coverage for contraception if an employer declines to do so based on moral or religious objections.
During the hearing, 10 witnesses testified on two separate panels: five male religious leaders on the first panel, and three men and two women on the second.
As the hearing began, Maloney looked at the first panel from the dais and asked, “Where are the women?”
That comment — along with Issa’s decision to not invite Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke to testify — became flash points in a renewed debate over women’s rights.
In the weeks since the hearing, Maloney and Issa have argued in the news media about whether women and their concerns were properly represented. Issa and his Republican colleagues note that the hearing was designed to air religious, not gender-based, concerns with the administration’s policy on contraception and that two women — Laura Champion of Calvin College Health Services and Allison Dabbs Garrett of Oklahoma Christian University — testified.
But things came to a head last week when Issa gave an interview to a California newspaper. Asked about the dispute over female witnesses, he accused Democrats of creating “a false image” that women were absent from the hearing.
“The Democrats asked for a man [to testify], they got a man, and then they withdrew him,” Issa told the Rancho Santa Fe Review. “Carolyn Maloney then made the famous [statement], ‘Where are the women?’ That was an outright lie, and she knew it when she said it. There were two women on the second panel — they had the list in front of them.”
On Tuesday, responding to Issa calling her a liar, Maloney invoked a point of personal privilege and spoke on the House floor about the dispute.
“I certainly understand that members on both sides of the aisle have different viewpoints on this issue, and I am not here to discuss the underlying policy differences we may have,” she said. “Today, I ask from Mr. Issa the same commitment I ask of myself: to always strive to hear from all sides of a debate without resorting to name-calling or attacks on the personal integrity of others. Even when we disagree with what others might say, we have an obligation to listen to them and respect their viewpoint.”
Hours before Maloney spoke, aides said that the two lawmakers talked by phone to settle the incident and that Issa followed up with a written apology.
“For years we have collaborated as colleagues on numerous projects intended to create better government for the American people,” Issa wrote in his letter to Maloney. “In this context, I agree with your point and regret that my choice of words in an interview with a community newspaper did not reflect the collegial relationship and open communication you and I have long enjoyed.”
“At times when we disagree there are better, more collegial ways to express such differences,” Issa added.
On the House floor, Maloney acknowledged receiving the letter but added that “women were called far worse than liars” after the hearing — a nod to radio host Rush Limbaugh’s comments about Fluke.
“I do think the women of America are owed an apology — an apology for denying them a voice and an apology for denying them a place at the table,” she added. “It was wrong then. It is wrong each time it happens. And it is especially wrong when women’s health, women’s lives and women’s rights are being discussed. And to cavalierly dismiss or deny that fact does greater damage to the fabric of democracy than words can ever redress.”
Issa spokesman Frederick Hill confirmed that a phone call took place Tuesday and shared a copy of the apology letter.
He added: “If Democrat leadership, however, still feels [Maloney] needs to argue that her statement wasn’t inaccurate, that’s their right under the rules. The facts, however, are pretty straightforward.”
So maybe the dispute isn’t settled after all?