Furious Democrats repeatedly bellowed "shame!" in the US House of Representatives on Thursday as their Republican colleagues changed their votes at the last minute to defeat a pro-LGBT amendment.
The chaotic scene unfolded on the House floor shortly before noon, and comes less than a day after the chamber passed a defense authorization bill that includes a Republican provision protecting federal contractors from discrimination based on religious beliefs.
Democrats say that the amendment is an explicit attempt by Republicans to undercut President Obama's 2014 executive order preventing discrimination against individuals based on their gender identity or sexual orientation in federal contracts. The religious liberty amendment was attached in committee and never got a separate vote by the full House, leaving Democrats to choose between authorizing funding for the Department of Defense or voting against language that they had dubbed discriminatory.
New York Representative Sean Patrick Maloney, a Democrat who failed in a bid with Republican members on Tuesday to add LGBT protections to the bill, offered an amendment on Thursday to try to overturn it. The amendment, which Maloney attached to separate legislation providing funding for military construction and the Department of Veterans Affairs, would provide LGBT protections to counteract the religious liberty language in the defense bill passed the night before.
House Democrats applauded and whistled initially when it looked as if the bill would pass and continued to clap as more members voted in the affirmative. By the time the vote was supposed to be over, the amendment had sufficient support to pass with 217 members of Congress, including 35 Republicans, voting in favor of the legislation, while 206 opposed.
But Republican leadership left the vote open long after its two-minute allotment had passed, as GOP members encouraged their colleagues to switch their votes from yea to nay. Democrats began to shout "regular order" — a call on House leadership to abide by the normal rules — and more than one member could be heard saying "America's watching" on C-SPAN as the vote began to flip.
After the first Republican vote was switched, Democrats booed loudly. But as more votes flipped, Democrats began to loudly shout "Shame! Shame! Shame!" in unison.
All told, seven Republicans changed their votes from yea to nay, and the amendment failed by a single vote, 212 to 213.
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer's office identified the Republicans who switched their votes in a series of tweets, calling them "shameful." They are Representatives Jeff Denham of California, Darrell Issa of California, Bruce Poliquin of Maine, David Valadao of California, Greg Walden of Oregon, Mimi Walters of California, and David Young of Iowa.
Their offices did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Furious Democrats blamed House leadership for holding the vote open and specifically pointed at House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who they say personally lobbied against the amendment to get members to switch their votes. His office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
"They literally snatched discrimination from the jaws of equality," Maloney said after the vote.
Maloney and other Democrats went on a rampage on social media following the vote, accusing Republicans of discriminating against LGBT Americans.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi twice accused Republicans of "bigotry" in a statement released Thursday afternoon.
"House Republicans' outrageous and cowardly actions today utterly expose the reality of their hateful agenda," she said. "The American people will not forget how hard Republicans worked to target LGBT Americans for discrimination."
Maloney argued on the House floor before Thursday's vote that the religious liberty language in the Defense Authorization Act should never have been there, and compared it to the controversial HB-2 law in North Carolina that targets LGBT rights. As the son of a veteran, Maloney said it was difficult for him to oppose the defense authorization on Wednesday, but that he believed that the House could rectify what he called "one of the ugliest episodes" that he has experienced in his congressional career by passing his amendment.
"It's wrong and it doesn't have anything to do with our military," Maloney said of the religious liberty language. "It doesn't have anything to do with fighting ISIS. It doesn't have anything to do with religious protections. It's about bigotry, plain and simple."
Maloney pressed the issue with Representative Pete Sessions, the chairman of the Rules Committee which rejected his attempts to alter the religious liberty language rom the defense bill on Tuesday night.
"My question to my colleague is simply, Mr. Speaker, if that's necessary for the promotion of the national defense? Is it necessary to discriminate against gays and lesbians and transgender Americans?" Maloney asked.
Sessions objected to Maloney trying to raise the issue again after the defense bill had already passed. Members of the House were well aware of the religious liberty language when they passed the defense bill on Wednesday, the Texan argued, adding that while many people opposed the language "more people" favored it. (The defense bill passed 277 to 147, with a majority of Democrats opposing).
"We need to support the men and women of the United States Military," Sessions said. "And we do not believe that this is stumbling block because we don't view what [Maloney is] saying is the critical and key issue."
It's unclear what options House Democrats have left to them, now that the defense authorization has passed. The Senate is working on its own version of the bill and a Democratic minority could work to strip out the language, but would have to get the House to agree. President Obama has already threatened to veto the House's defense authorization legislation for numerous reasons, including language that would make it more difficult for his administration to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay.
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