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Breaking with GOP, McMorris Rodgers votes against major change to the Americans with Disabilities Act

FILE - Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., accompanied by other members of Congress, speaks during a news conference Saturday, Jan. 20, 2018, at Capitol Hill in Washington. (Jose Luis Magana / AP)

U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers broke with most of her Republican colleagues Thursday by voting against a bill to amend the Americans with Disabilities Act, siding with critics who say the legislation would remove incentives for businesses to comply with the law and erode the civil rights of people with disabilities.

The Eastern Washington congresswoman, who has a 10-year-old son with Down syndrome, was one of 19 Republicans who opposed the ADA Education and Reform Act. The bill passed the House on a 225-to-192 vote, with support from 12 Democrats, while disability-rights advocates staged a large protest in the viewing galleries.

“The ADA was enacted more than 25 years ago to protect the disability community, and as part of that community, I could not in good conscience vote for this bill,” McMorris Rodgers said in a statement.

The ADA, enacted in 1990, requires businesses to ensure that disabled customers have equal access to products and services. If businesses don’t comply, they can be sued without warning.

According to business groups and other proponents of the bill that passed the House on Thursday, some unscrupulous lawyers have abused the system by threatening litigation over ADA violations, seeking monetary settlements without actually trying to improve access for people with disabilities.

Proponents of the change say it would stem the predatory practice of “drive-by lawsuits,” so named because a lawyer can threaten one without physically inspecting the premises.

Rep. Jackie Speier, a California Democrat and lead co-sponsor of the bill, told the Washington Post she has “witnessed too many rip-off artists in California that are in it for just making a buck.”

Proponents also say businesses often don’t know they are violating the ADA before someone threatens to sue over it.

Under the amended law, those wishing to sue a business over an ADA violation would need to first detail that violation in a written notice. After receiving the notice, the business would have 60 days to outline a plan to fix the problem and an additional 120 days to take action. The lawsuit would be allowed to move forward only if the business fails to act during that time.

Critics, however, say the waiting period wouldn’t necessarily prevent legal shakedowns because lawyers could still demand monetary settlements that don’t involve fixing the problems they identify. They say abuses are better mitigated through state laws and local disciplinary authorities.

“While I can appreciate and understand the intent to provide fairness to businesses, any changes should preserve the spirit of the ADA and reduce the burden on individuals with disabilities to bring legitimate compliance claims,” McMorris Rodgers said in her statement.

In a September letter to the House Judiciary Committee, a coalition of more than 200 disability-rights groups said the bill would make people with disabilities “second-class citizens.” They noted that no other federal civil rights statute imposes such restrictions before a lawsuit can be filed.

“By this time, business owners have had ample notice of the ADA’s requirements and opportunity to remove barriers,” the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities said. “If, after 27 years, a business has continued to not comply with the requirements of this legislation, why should a person have to wait more time for enforcement of their civil rights? Should an individual who is not allowed to enter a restaurant because of their race, gender or religion have to wait before seeking to enforce their civil rights?”

It’s not clear how the bill will fare in the Senate. The Post reported that no similar bill has emerged from a Senate committee, and top Democrats, including Sens. Patty Murray of Washington and Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, are strongly opposed.

Duckworth, an Army veteran, lost her legs in 2004 when a rocket-propelled grenade tore through the Black Hawk helicopter she was co-piloting in Iraq. In a series of Twitter posts Thursday morning, she urged colleagues in the House to vote against the bill, and later vowed to fight “tooth and nail” to stop it from advancing in the Senate.

“Supporters of #HR260 don’t deny that they’re violating the law – they just resent being sued for ‘minor’ #ADA infractions. But an incline that is ‘only’ a few degrees too steep, or an entrance that is ‘only’ a few inches high, can determine if I’m able to access an area w/out help,” Duckworth wrote. “Being unable to independently enter a movie theater, store, hotel or restaurant is not only humiliating, it limits the freedom to pursue certain jobs, access necessary services & enjoy basic conveniences that most Americans don’t think twice about.”