WASHINGTON – Republicans pushed legislation through the House Thursday that would revoke a District of Columbia law barring discrimination in the city against workers who have abortions, the latest clash pitting claims of religious freedom against reproductive rights.
House passage was largely symbolic because the capital city's law takes effect Saturday unless Congress first approves legislation blocking it that is also signed by President Barack Obama. The Senate is unlikely to consider the measure by then, and for good measure the White House threatened a veto should it ever reach the president's desk.
"This legislation would give employers cover to fire employees for the personal decisions they make about birth control and their reproductive health," the White House said in a written statement.
Thursday's House approval by a mostly party-line 228-192 vote served as a prelude to a renewed effort likely later this year, when conservatives are expected to use budget legislation financing the city government to try blocking the local statute. Lawmakers cast the clash as one that was larger than a dispute over one community's ordinances.
"The goal here is to resume the war against women," said Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat who is the district's non-voting representative in Congress. "This bill or a version of it is pending all over the country. Stop it here or it will spread throughout the United States of America."
Norton and other supporters said the measure would forbid companies from discriminating against employees who seek abortion or contraceptives or make other reproductive health decisions.
They argued that the GOP effort to annul the city's law contradicted the usual Republican argument that Congress should not impose its will on local governments.
"Most Republicans cannot pass up an opportunity to meddle in personal reproductive decisions or D.C.'s right to govern itself," said Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass.
Opponents of the local law said it would force employers like churches, religious schools and anti-abortion organizations to violate their own religious beliefs and provide contraceptive coverage to their workers. They said it could also prevent such groups from acting against employees who privately undermine their employer's mission, such as by volunteering at abortion clinics.
"I stand here to defend the rights of religious institutions and pro-life companies to honor their faith and respect the sanctity of life," said Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Mo.
Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., said the city's law "promotes intolerance of anyone who disagrees with the world view of the majority of the D.C. City Council."
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, a conservative presidential candidate, has introduced Senate legislation that would overturn the district's law, saying it "undermines religious liberty."
By law, federal lawmakers can block measures approved by the District of Columbia government and usually do that using Congress' annual spending bills that finance the city's budget.
They haven't used the separate process the House attempted Thursday — in which Congress has a limited time to revoke a law the city has already enacted — since 1991. That is when Congress, then controlled by Democrats, prevented the city from allowing buildings to exceed a maximum height, which federal law caps at 160 feet.