Ga. delegation split as U.S. House votes to remove one ERA obstacle

The U.S. House voted to remove one barrier to adding the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, but plenty of legal and political obstacles remain. Georgia's delegation split largely along party lines. 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 the 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. But the amendment still hadn’t gotten 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, Georgia’s delegation largely split along party lines. Eight Republicans opposed the resolution; all five Democrats supported it. Republican Rep. Tom Graves did not vote.

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.).

Rep. Lucy McBath, a freshman Democrat from Georgia, spoke on the House floor Thursday in favor of the ERA and the effort to remove the deadline.

“Women have been fighting tooth and nail for decades to be recognized as equal under the eyes of the law,” McBath said. “While we have made significant gains, it’s time for full constitutional equality.”

A Georgia Republican, Rep. Doug Collins, led the GOP arguments against the resolution on the House floor.

“House Democrats are trying to retroactively revive the failed constitutional amendment,” he said. “Congress does not have the power to do that.”

Indeed, 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. Neither Georgia Republican senator has signed on.

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. Several states have filed a federal lawsuit arguing that the deadline for ratification had expired. Even if it hadn’t, they said, five states — Nebraska, Idaho, Tennessee, Kentucky and South Dakota — have since rescinded their ratifications.

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.

“She’s speaking the truth about this issue,” Collins said of the Supreme Court justice. “We disagree on most everything from a legal perspective. But on this one, we happen to agree.”

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.

Collins said supporters of the ERA are seeking a legal tool to fight state abortion restrictions, and to ensure “unfettered abortion.” The issue “hits close to home,” he said, citing his daughter born with spina bifida. “I do not want to hear that we’re protecting disabled rights and other rights when we’re not even allowing them to be born in certain arenas.”

Pelosi called the GOP’s arguments about abortion an “excuse” for those who oppose the ERA. “This has nothing to do with the abortion issue,” she said.