Several Republicans want to take on the Obama administration over its edict to school districts, but not everyone in the party agrees.
House Republicans are preparing to wade into the fight over transgender bathroom use in public schools.
Rep. Luke Messer, the fifth-highest-ranking elected House Republican leader, said he will introduce a bill this week combatting President Obama’s recent directive that public schools allow transgender youth to use bathrooms corresponding with their gender identity.
“We made it 240 years as a nation without any federal restroom police, so why start now?” said Messer, an Indiana Republican. “To me this should be a local decision. We don’t need the federal government strong-arming local schools.”
Obama’s directive threatens to withhold funding from local school districts if they do not comply. But Messer said his bill would disallow that, and prohibit the Departments of Education or Justice from implementing rules and regulations regarding bathroom use.
“I don’t think this social experiment should start in our classrooms,” he said.
Still, Messer said he has not yet spoken with top congressional leaders, including Speaker Paul Ryan, about the bill.
A Ryan aide said, “Speaker Ryan believes this is a state and local issue and the federal government should respect that.” But the aide did not answer whether Ryan supports legislative action on the matter or instead believes the issue should be left to the courts. The DOJ has sued North Carolina, and the state has countersued over its law mandating bathroom use correspond with birth gender, not gender identity.
As the House begins consideration of its first appropriations bill later this week, members of both parties will have ample opportunities to push the transgender-bathroom issue on the House floor with or without leaders’ sign-off. Republican Study Committee Chairman Bill Flores said he has spoken to several members about the issue and expects amendments to be proposed to spending bills in attempts to block the Departments of Justice and Education from implementing the directive.
“What this is about is following the rule of law and following the Constitution, so I think we’ll have legislative action to stop the president’s and his related agencies’ attempts to circumvent the law,” Flores said.
It is not clear whether Democrats intend to force the issue as well. Rep. Mike Honda, a California Democrat whose granddaughter is transgender, said he will look into offering amendments that would mandate all-gender restrooms in government buildings.
Meanwhile, GOP Rep. Mark Walker of North Carolina, a former Baptist minister, said he has written a letter to the Department of Education asking for clarification on Obama’s directive. He said his concern is the legally “dangerous situation” it puts teachers in if they use their discretion to disallow students from using bathrooms that do not correspond with their birth gender. Based on their answer, he said, he may also introduce legislation.
“Let’s say we have a 17-year-old who all of a sudden one week tells her that he’s going through this gender-fluid transformation, that he now needs to use the female locker rooms. The teacher may say, ‘Well, listen, I have a concern with that. I’m not going to let you do that,’” Walker said. “Does that bring Title IX in? Does that protect the school board? Does she have any recourse of protection?”
Rep. Mark Takano, an openly gay California Democrat who has been vocal about LGBT rights, said that on the contrary, the directive is about the protection of vulnerable students, and that he and other Democrats would fight back against any such legislation.
“It’s not about experimenting on the schools; it’s about schools accommodating and respecting a vulnerable minority,” Takano said. “This is the political opportunism of social conservatives taking advantage of a relatively lesser-understood group of people.”
Republicans, however, believe that it is the Obama administration that has turned a local issue into a national political matter. Rep. Tom Cole, who chairs the appropriations subcommittee with oversight of the Department of Education, said he would welcome amendments targeting Obama’s directive.
“This is a cheap political drive-by shooting, and it’ll have consequences,” Cole said. “I think this is a fight that the administration wanted to pick. It’s certainly not a hard fight for me to engage in because I think it’s an incredible governmental overreach. We don’t have any business telling every school district in America what their bathroom policy ought to be.”
Still, some Republicans may not be comfortable engaging the administration in a legislative fight that can be exploited for political purposes. Rep. Trent Franks said he is incensed by the directive, calling it “arrogant” and “a disgrace beyond expression.” But he said the courts may be the best recourse for opponents of the administration’s move.
“I think the fact that the state is suing in court on constitutional bases that are very sound could be the most effective way to beat this back,” he said.
Furthermore, there is not unanimity in the House Republican Conference. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, for instance, has a transgender son and has been outspoken in favor of rights for the LGBT community, even cutting recent ads in Spanish and English urging acceptance of transgender people.
“Every transgender person is part of someone’s family and should be treated with compassion and protected from discrimination,” she said in the ad.