U.S. House votes to remove ERA obstacle; FL lawmakers split

A woman holds up a sign as members of Congress and representatives of women's groups hold a rally to mark the 40th anniversary of congressional passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) outside the U.S. Capitol March 22, 2012 in Washington, DC. | Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — The U.S. House voted on Thursday to remove one barrier to adding the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, but plenty of legal and political obstacles remain.

The House voted 232-183 on Thursday — largely along partisan lines — to approve a resolution that would remove an expired congressional deadline for ratification of a constitutional amendment to ensure equality for U.S. citizens under the law, regardless of their sex.

The Equal Rights Amendment was first introduced in Congress in 1923 and was passed overwhelmingly by the House and Senate in the 1970s.

Lawmakers initially set a March 1979 ratification deadline for states, which was later extended to June 1982. The amendment still had not gained the backing of 38 states when that deadline expired.

But this year, Virginia sparked renewed discussions about the fate of the long-stalled ERA when it became the 38th state to ratify the amendment.

In the vote Thursday to remove the deadline, Florida’s delegation was split.

Here are the Florida House Democrats who backed the resolution: Reps. Al Lawson, Stephanie Murphy, Darren Soto, Val Demings, Charlie Crist, Kathy Castor, Alcee Hastings, Lois Frankel, Ted Deutch, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Frederica Wilson, Debbie Mucarsel-Powell and Donna Shalala.

Here are the Florida House Republicans who opposed it: Matt Gaetz, Neal Dunn, Ted Yoho, John Rutherford, Michael Waltz, Bill Posey, Daniel Webster, Gus Bilirakis, Ross Spano, Vern Buchanan, Gregory Steube, Francis Rooney and Mario Diaz-Balart.

Not voting in the Florida delegation: Republican Brian Mast.

The effort faces political opposition in the GOP-controlled Senate and is already ensnared in court battles, but ERA proponents heralded Thursday’s vote as an important step toward enshrining women’s equality in the Constitution.

“This is an historic day, a happy day as the House takes action to move our nation closer to the founding — our founding ideal that all are created equal,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

“After nearly a century, the Equal Rights Amendment is on the cusp of ratification,” Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) said Thursday on the House floor.

“At America’s founding, women were intentionally left out of the Constitution. As second-class citizens, we lacked the right to vote, hold most jobs or even own property. Today, we still receive less pay for the same work and we face violence and harassment just for being women. The ERA will prohibit all of that. In the eyes of our most sacred document, we will finally be equal.”

The resolution to remove the deadline faces an uncertain future in the GOP-controlled Senate and in the courts.

Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) has introduced a Senate version of the resolution to remove the ERA deadline.

His bill has 44 co-sponsors, including two Republicans, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine.

The Trump administration weighed in on the issue recently with a legal opinion that the ERA couldn’t be ratified due to the expired deadline. The opinion from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel said, “Congress may not revive a proposed amendment after the deadline has expired.”

That issue is likely to play out in the courts. Attorneys general in Alabama, Louisiana and South Dakota have filed a federal lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Alabama arguing that the deadline for ratification has expired. Even if it had not, they said, five states — Nebraska, Idaho, Tennessee, Kentucky and South Dakota — have since rescinded their ratifications.

A countersuit by ERA advocacy group Equal Means Equal argues in U.S. District Court in Boston that legislation which set and later extended the deadline is not part of the amendment itself and thus the amendment is not bound by it. It further argues that the Constitution makes no provision for states to rescind ratification.

In another countersuit, attorneys general for the states of Virginia, Illinois and Nevada – the last three states to ratify – demand in U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia that their ratifications be counted immediately and the amendment officially implemented, regardless of the expired deadline, which they say is not constitutionally supported.

Opponents of the ERA, including congressional Republicans, have pointed to recent remarks from liberal U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as evidence that ERA advocates need to start over. “I would like to see a new beginning” for ERA ratification, she said in an interview.

Legislation has been introduced in both the House and Senate that would effectively start the process from scratch in Congress, but that effort promises to be more politically difficult than getting the votes needed to scrap the deadline.

Many Republican lawmakers argued on the House floor Thursday that the Equal Rights Amendment would be used by supporters to fight abortion restrictions.

“If ratified, the ERA would be used by pro-abortion groups to undo pro-life legislation and lead to more abortions and taxpayer-funding of abortions,” said Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-Ariz.).

Pelosi brushed off that argument Thursday, calling it an “excuse” for those who oppose the ERA. “This has nothing to do with the abortion issue,” she said.

In Florida, a bipartisan group of lawmakers called for Florida to become the 39th state to ratify the ERA. Democratic Reps. Fentrice Driskell, of Hillsborough County, and Dotie Joseph of Miami-Dade, along with Republican Rep. Heather Fitzenhagen held a press conference in the Capitol in Tallahassee urging Republican leaders to allow ERA bills to be heard in committee.

As female elected officials from different political parties, they said gender equality should not be a partisan issue. Fitzenhagen noted that Republican presidents Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford all were supporters of the ERA.

“If there is one thing I really want to emphasize, it’s that this should not be a Democratic or Republican issue,” said Driskell, who is sponsoring ERA legislation in the House but has been unable to get it scheduled for hearings. “If you ask 90 percent of Americans, across party affiliations, they support equal rights for men and women.”

Kim Porteous, president of Florida’s National Organization for Women, said abortion is a red herring in the debate over the ERA. She said that what ERA supporters long for is a constitutional guarantee of gender equality, which would ensure equal pay for equal work, protect women from discrimination, and endure permanently, unlike state and federal laws than can change from year to year.

Porteous added that ERA forces reactivated after seeing and hearing more anti-woman behavior around the country, even in the highest offices of the land. She said the #MeToo movement exposing the widespread nature of sexual harassment played a major role.

“That’s why Virginia flipped. That’s why they felt it was so important that the 38th state ratify the Equal Rights Amendment,” Porteous said. “Now, we want Florida to be the 39th.”