Congress Moves To Overturn D.C. 'Death With Dignity Law'

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Protesters in favor of Washington, D.C's assisted suicide law outside of congressional office buildings on Feb. 13, 2017.

A version of this story was originally published by member station WAMU.

With the GOP fully in control of the federal government for the first time since 2006, Congressional Republicans are taking their first steps to assert their power over the District of Columbia's local government.

After an impassioned debate, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee voted Monday evening to block a D.C. law giving District physicians the right to prescribe lethal medication to terminally ill patients who have less than six months to live.

Committee chair Jason Chaffetz and other Republican conservatives have argued that the D.C. law should be nullified because it runs counter to ethical prohibitions against suicide. Most of the Republicans on the committee framed their opposition as a "pro-life" stance, with a number expressing concerns that the D.C. law could leave vulnerable dying patients at the mercy of physicians and relatives eager to hasten their exit.

"I worry that assisted suicide will create a marketplace for death," Chaffetz said.

Rep. Darrell Issa R-Calif., who represents one of six states that already have enacted legislation similar to D.C.'s right-to-die bill, was the only Republican to vote against the measure. Issa argued that given Congress' failure to stop such legislation nationally, he didn't think interference in D.C. affairs was justified.

In a statement after the committee vote, Mayor Bowser called it "a signal to DC residents that Congress has zero respect or concern for their will or the will of their elected officials."

Though the District gained an elected mayor and legislature in 1973, Congress retained broad authority over the city. That included the right to disapprove of bills — or, in simpler words, block bills passed by the D.C. Council from taking effect. But that right has been used sparingly: Congress has only formally blocked three D.C. bills over the last 45 years.

The panel voted 22-14 in favor of sending to the House floor the bill to the House floor. However that may be as far as it goes.

Unless conservative Republican backers of the manage to get the committee-passed "resolution of disapproval" through the House and Senate and signed by President Donald Trump by the end of the week — an exceedingly uphill battle given the normal pace of Congress — the law appears likely to take effect as passed by D.C. Council and signed into law by Mayor Muriel Bowser.

The bill becomes law if it is not blocked within 30 legislative working days of being sent Congress. By the D.C. City Council's calculations, time is up for opponents of the Death With Dignity bill on or about Saturday.

That leaves an almost impossibly narrow window for floor votes in the House and Senate. Moreover, it is not even certain that Trump would sign a disapproval resolution. White House press secretary Sean Spicer refused to say what the president might do when asked about the Death With Dignity law at a press briefing last week.

The audience at the committee meeting, which lasted until past 7:30, included activists in the right-to-die movement, including at least one who considers herself a potential beneficiary: Mary Klein, a 69-year-old D.C. resident who is dying of cancer. In an earlier interview with WAMU, Klein described the measure's passage, by an 11-2 D.C. Council vote in November, as "a great relief." Dan Diaz, the widower of Brittany Maynard, a young woman who wrote about her decision to end her life after a long battle with brain cancer, also turned up "to support D.C.," he said.

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