Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton speaks in May 2011 during a hearing of the House… (Sarah L. Voisin/THE WASHINGTON…)
Rep. Trent Franks’s district in suburban Phoenix is two time zones away from Washington, a fact not lost on D.C. leaders as the Arizona Republican presided Thursday over the latest in a long series of attempts to control social issues in the nation’s capital.
At issue this time was his bill, with 193 co-sponsors, to ban all abortions in the District beyond 20 weeks, except to save the life of the mother.
Adding insult to injury, from the point of view of local officials, was that Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), the District’s lone, nonvoting member of Congress — sitting in the front row of a subcommittee hearing room — was not allowed to speak.
Presiding over the hearing, Franks, who frequently cites the U.S. Constitution, said Congress has the authority to “exercise exclusive legislation in all cases whatsoever” in the District. He also described late-term abortions as “inhumane” and “torturous,” and he called them “the greatest human rights atrocity in the United States today.”
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (N.Y.), the subcommittee’s ranking Democrat, called the measure another attack on women’s rights and criticized Republicans for not allowing Norton to testify. “Never in my 20 years as a member of Congress have I seen a colleague treated so contemptuously,” Nadler said.
Norton, who was also not allowed to speak on an abortion measure last year, called it “the denial of a common courtesy” to a fellow member.
This is not the first time the District has been in the crosshairs in the national battle over abortion. President Obama traded away the city’s right to fund abortions for low-income women in a budget deal with House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) last spring, and House Republicans have refused to grant budget autonomy to the District unless such a ban is made permanent.
On Thursday, Republicans and Democrats bickered over procedure after Norton’s request to testify was rejected. Franks offered to have her sit on the dais with other House members, though without permission to speak or ask questions. Norton declined.
“We have a member of Congress who wants to come in to talk about her district,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). “I can’t even imagine a situation where someone else would be denied that opportunity, and I think it’s wrong.”
At a news conference, Norton said Franks’s measure made her feel “disgust and anger,” because “the reach of this bill goes well beyond anything we have experienced.”
She has often said the city is mistreated by Congress because it lacks elected officials with votes in the House or Senate.
D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) remarked sarcastically that if Franks feels strongly about how the city is run, “I would invite him to become a candidate for D.C. Council.”
Generally, the subcommittee allows the minority party to invite one witness to testify. For Thursday’s hearing, Democrats tapped Christy Zink, a D.C. resident who told of having an abortion at 21 weeks after tests showed the fetus had life-threatening brain anomalies. Republicans called as their witnesses three doctors who supported Franks’s contention that fetuses can feel pain.
Nadler “had the opportunity to invite one witness to this hearing,” Franks said. “He had every opportunity to invite Ms. Norton. He chose not to.”
But members of Congress are often allowed to testify at hearings, apart from any witness quota, if a bill specifically affects their districts.
The issue of minority-solicited testimony drew attention this year when a House hearing on insurance coverage of contraception had an all-male panel of witnesses. In that case, unlike this one, Democrats specifically alleged that their preferred witness was not allowed to testify.
Norton and other District leaders have clashed repeatedly with Hill Republicans over abortion, particularly over the policy that prevents the city from spending its own money to pay for abortions for low-income women.
Franks’s bill would go further. It would bar all abortions after 20 weeks, regardless of who pays. The bill is based on model legislation prepared by the National Right to Life Committee, versions of which have become law in six states.
“This legislation is NRLC’s top congressional priority for 2012,” said Douglas Johnson, the group’s legislative director.
He added later, “A vote against HR 3803 will be scored by NRLC as a vote to ratify a policy of unlimited legal abortion until the moment of birth in the nation’s capital.”
A Senate version of the bill, proposed by Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), has 23 co-sponsors.
It is unclear when the House bill might come up for a vote before the full Judiciary Committee or on the House floor, and the Democratic-controlled Senate is unlikely to pass it.
D.C. Vote, a group that advocates D.C. voting rights in Congress, meanwhile, has sought to pressure Franks. In March, the group protested outside his district office in Arizona. Next Wednesday, it wants D.C. residents to visit Franks’s Washington office to tell him of “local problems” that he can address as the city’s “self-appointed advocate.”
Staff writer Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.