New culture wars erupt in House

New culture wars erupt in House
© Greg Nash

When Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.) offered a measure last summer to forbid funds in an underlying spending bill from being used by federal contractors discriminating against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, it was approved with little fanfare.

President Obama a year earlier had issued an executive order prohibiting such discrimination by federal contractors. No one bothered to speak out on the House floor against adding the Peters language to a Transportation Department spending bill.

“We thought that was it,” Peters said.

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Now, almost a year later, appropriations bills are all but under siege over identical amendments.

An Energy Department ­spending bill failed on the House floor last week after Rep. Sean Patrick ­Maloney’s (D-N.Y.) amendment to enforce Obama’s 2014 order was adopted.

Between the conservatives who bolted over Maloney’s amendment and Democrats who opposed GOP riders and spending levels in the bill, support for the $37.4 billion legislation collapsed.

Election-year politics are certainly playing a role in the new battles.

The election season always inflames politics on the House floor as lawmakers in both parties eye primary challenges and seek to play to their bases.

But lawmakers say there’s more to the story this time around.

They say outrage among the conservative grass roots over the Obama administration’s push to require public schools to let transgender people use bathrooms matching their gender identity has provoked a serious backlash that makes the new amendments offered in the House much tougher for Republicans to let stand.

Democrats also see a political opportunity in forcing votes on the amendments.

Much of their strategy in 2016 is about painting the GOP as a reflection of presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump rips Dems' demands, impeachment talk: 'Witch Hunt continues!' Nevada Senate passes bill that would give Electoral College votes to winner of national popular vote The Hill's Morning Report - Pelosi remains firm despite new impeachment push MORE’s derogatory rhetoric about women and minorities. Pushing amendments that forbid discrimination, and then watching Republicans fight over them, works to Democrats’ favor.

“I think we’re living in a new world of Donald Trump and a Republican Party that is driving itself further and further away from common sense and further toward a radical approach to government,” said Maloney, an openly gay Democrat who offered the amendments over the last few weeks prohibiting federal contractors from engaging in LGBT discrimination.

To Republicans, the fight has become a proxy battle over what they see as executive overreach. Fewer and fewer Republican lawmakers are backing amendments similar to the Peters and Maloney language. Sixty Republicans backed the Peters amendment in 2015. Only 43 supported identical language last week. 

Some Republicans are also offering their own countermeasures.

The House last week adopted Rep. Robert Pittenger’s (R-N.C.) amendment to prevent the administration from withholding federal funds as part of its fight against North Carolina’s law requiring transgender people to use the bathroom corresponding with their gender at birth. 

The language was added to last week’s spending bill, and Pittenger promises to repeat the move with future appropriations bills.

“Yes, we are a pluralistic society. Yes, we need to have respect for all people,” Pittenger said. But Obama, he says, “needs to be reined in.”

The fighting has divided House Republicans and complicated Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanAmash storm hits Capitol Hill Debate with Donald Trump? Just say no Ex-Trump adviser says GOP needs a better health-care message for 2020 MORE’s (R-Wis.) job.

Seven House Republicans came under fire after they were accused of switching sides under pressure from GOP leaders so that Maloney’s amendment would fail the first time it was offered. 

At a closed-door GOP conference meeting last week, one Georgia lawmaker (Rep. Rick Allen) read a Bible passage condemning homosexuality and suggested that people voting for the Democratic amendment were committing a sin. Several Republican lawmakers walked out of the room in disgust.

Republicans who voted for the anti-discrimination measure in 2015 but later opposed it, such as Rep. Jim Renacci (R-Ohio), said they backtracked after concerns emerged later about conflicts with the free expression of religion. 

“Renacci was confident religious liberties would be fully protected at the time he took the vote on the Peters amendment, but after talking further with constituents, he believed that such amendments should expressly clarify that religious liberties would remain fully protected,” spokeswoman Lizzie Litzow said.

This time, the fight over transgender bathroom policies and LGBT discrimination is part of what Republicans such as Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-Ala.) see as a string of events downplaying religious freedom.

He cited the Supreme Court’s ruling in the ObamaCare decision involving Hobby Lobby, the crafts store that sued over the healthcare reform law’s requirement that businesses offer coverage for birth control.

“In general, I think there is less support among the liberal Democrats for anything having to do with religion. They’re becoming anti-religion,” Byrne said.

House GOP leaders are trying to avoid another fight over LGBT discrimination by possibly limiting or adding restrictions to the open process currently used to consider appropriations bills. 

When asked about the GOP criticism that he offered his amendment merely as a political maneuver, Maloney shot back: “I think that’s easy for someone to say who has all their rights.

“As you can see, the war’s not over.”