WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate failed to advance a symbolic measure to enshrine in the Constitution equal protection on the basis of sex, a century after the idea began circulating among lawmakers.
Senators on Thursday voted 51-47 to go forward with a bill that would lift Congress’ self-imposed 1982 deadline for three-fourths of states to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. The procedural vote, or cloture vote, required 60 senators for the ERA to move forward.
The joint resolution, sponsored by Democrat Ben Cardin of Maryland and Republican Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, aimed to codify protections from sex discrimination alongside other protected classes, including race, religion and national origin.
GOP senators who joined all Democrats in voting yes included Murkowski and Susan Collins of Maine. Louisiana Republican Bill Cassidy initially voted yes but then returned to change his vote to no.
All other Republicans also voted no, except for Mike Lee of Utah, who was absent.
Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein remains on an extended absence from the Senate. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York changed his vote to no in a maneuver to recommit the bill for future consideration.
The vote was briefly interrupted by a protester who began yelling from the gallery when Texas Republican Ted Cruz walked onto the floor to cast his vote.
“Letting Cruz into this chamber puts the ERA at risk,” the protester yelled. “… Poor women cannot afford lawyers to save their own lives.”
U.S. Capitol Police escorted the woman out of the gallery seats but yelling briefly continued in the hallway outside the chamber.
Cardin and Murkowski both spoke on the Senate floor prior to the 12:30 p.m. Eastern vote.
“Most Americans already think it’s part of the Constitution,” Cardin said.
Murkowski highlighted that Alaska ratified the ERA in 1972.
“Some have suggested the ERA is no longer needed. We’ve certainly made great strides as women since 1923, but there’s a lot more that needs to be done,” Murkowski said.
“Women are a majority of the U.S. population but continue to be under-represented in elected office, in the courts, in the business world and in so many other areas. There remains, of course, a pay gap. We know of this, we hear the statistics all the time.”
The vote was scheduled during a lull in the Senate schedule. With the GOP-led U.S. House passing numerous bills that Democratic senators, who hold a slim majority, scoff at, the upper chamber has largely focused on approving executive branch appointees.
The chamber is now gearing up to find a solution to the nation’s looming credit default — though Schumer and President Joe Biden have repeatedly said they will not negotiate on House Republicans’ attempts to tie spending cuts to raising the debt ceiling.
Murkowski said she did not like the ERA vote “being used as filler on the floor.”
“As somewhat of an exercise that runs clock on a largely empty legislative calendar, I don’t see how the ERA or women in this country will ultimately benefit from that,” she said. “But I am proud to lead this resolution with Sen. Cardin.”
The ERA was first introduced in 1923 following the women’s suffrage movement and the passage of the 19th Amendment that granted women the right to vote.
In 1972, the U.S. House and Senate passed the ERA and sent it to the states for ratification, as outlined in the Constitution. Congress imposed a seven-year deadline for the necessary ratification by three-fourths of the states, or 38.
Only 35 had ratified the amendment by 1978 when Congress then extended the deadline to 1982.
The last three states needed did not ratify the amendment until between 2017 and 2020 — well after the 1982 cutoff. They included Nevada, Illinois and Virginia.
The fight to implement the ERA has been the subject of numerous unsuccessful court cases.
Cardin and Murkowski’s S.J. Res. 4 would have voided the 1982 deadline and accepted all requisite state ratifications regardless of when they were approved.
Reactions to vote
Following the vote, the League of Women Voters issued a statement calling the vote “a disappointing day for America.”
“Our nation’s elected leaders have failed yet again to see us as equal members of this democracy,” said the advocacy organization’s CEO Virginia Kase Solomón.
“It is shameful that despite the significant advances made in recent history, Americans continue to face discrimination on the basis of sex and lack equal rights in the Constitution. Inequality hurts everyone, and we must not continue to be a nation that harmfully excludes and marginalizes women.”
Alliance Defending Freedom — the faith-based legal advocacy group representing the plaintiffs in the abortion pill case currently at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit — issued its own statement calling the ERA “legally dead for decades.”
“(A)ttempting to ratify it after its expiration only undermines our rule of law. Women deserve to be treated with equality and fairness under the law, but this amendment actually would have undermined that, too,” said Denise Harle, the organization’s lead legal counsel.
In a nod to increasingly heated political rhetoric regarding transgender rights, Harle said: “We’ve seen increasing efforts from radical ideologues and activists to reject truth and redefine ‘sex,’ leaving the very word the ERA centers on subject to alarming reinterpretation.”