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Extended; ERA battle comes down to the wire

The Equal Rights Amendment, rapidly approaching its June 30 deadline, is still hanging by a slender thread of hope, say its advocates.

The Equal Rights Amendment is dead, say its opponents.

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Three more states are needed for ratification. There is some question if that is enough, as several states want to rescind their ratification.

Here's how both groups see it, case by case:

Virginia: On Feb. 17, the ERA carried the vote in the Senate 20-19, but failed because of a longstanding rule that requires constitutional amendments to be passed by an absolute majority -- 21 votes. Advocates are working on a rules change before the legislature ends mid-March. Should they succeed, the amendment would automatically pass to the House of Delegates, where it has never been voted (the bill has died each year in committee). Ruth Hinerfeld, president of the national League of Women Voters, describes its chances through this complicated process as ''one-sixteenth of a prayer.''

Florida: The amendment was introduced in the Senate here on Jan. 25, but no action has been taken while the legislature grapples with a redistricting bill. ERA advocates say they are taking it slow, trying to apply political pressure and galvanize the citizenry to overcome what they perceive as a two- to three-vote loss. Phyllis Schlafly, vocal opponent of the amendment, feels the measure will ''never make it through the Senate,'' though she counts the House as ''close.'' ERA advocates, meanwhile, feel they probably have a victory in the House, and have ''half a chance'' in the Senate.

Oklahoma: On Jan. 13 the ERA went down in the Senate by a vote of 27-21. A move to reconsider the amendment was made three days later; then Senate President Marvin York successfully tabled the measure rather than risk an almost certain second defeat. Since getting the amendment off the table would require a two-thirds vote of the Senate, Sens. Gene Stipe and Bernice Schedrick instead introduced their own ERA bill on Feb. 8. They are working to get it through a committee while hunting for the six needed votes.

The Oklahoma House, meanwhile, took action Feb. 17 so that Speaker Dan Draper , an ERA advocate, can move the bill any time up to March 28.

Ruth Adams, project director for the National Organization for Women's ERA Countdown in Oklahoma, describes the amendment's chances in the House as ''good.'' But she believes that the amendment is ''being held hostage between the two legislatures -- the House says the Senate has to move first, and the Senate says the House has to move first. It's time to ask who's responsible for letting the ERA go down.''

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Illinois: The situation here is highly complex, with advocates battling on several different fronts at once, and opponents confident that the amendment will never pass. Under the present set of rules, the amendment must receive a three-fifths vote in both the House and the Senate -- a number advocates admit is ''impossible to reach.''

Instead, they have concentrated their efforts on getting the rule changed to one that would require a simple majority vote. Should they manage the change, they are confident the amendment could pass both the House and the Senate.

Speaker of the House George Ryan countered this move by refusing to consider any rules change this year, leaving the legislature to operate under last year's rules.

The speaker, meanwhile, is running in the Republican primary next month for lieutenant governor and after March 16, win or lose, will become a lame duck in the House. Advocates hope this will weaken his position, allowing them to gather the votes necessary to overrule him on the rules change.

The primary is the scene of yet another battle. The speaker is running against two other Republican candidates: a conservative and a moderate fellow member of the House who has served as the ERA's chief sponsor. The latter's campaign is being run strictly on the basis of her support for the ERA ''with the hope that she receives a strong showing at the polls,'' says NOW's Illinois coordinator Mary Jean Collins.

''If we can prove that a significant number of Republicans voted for her and the ERA,'' explains Ms. Collins, ''we can use that to put pressure on our Republican governor.''

Another factor in the Illinois situation is the redistricting plan, now under consideration. Mrs. Hinerfeld says it ''adds greatly to the fluidity of the situation,'' since the plan calls for a change to single-member districts, as well as redrawn lines.

At this point, Ms. Collins calls the amendment's chances ''impossible to predict. On a scale of 1 to 10, I'd give it a 5.''

North Carolina: The legislature, which does not meet until June, has a ''gentlemen's agreement not to even bring up the ERA,'' says Mrs. Schlafly, ''because (its advocates) know they don't have the votes.'' Mrs. Hinerfeld agrees with this assessment, though she adds that ''I'd use the term 'gentlemen' very loosely.''

She also points out that North Carolina's governor has appointed a task force on women's issues which at present is holding hearings around the state and says , ''This may bring a lot of citizen support by June.'' Still, she characterizes the amendment's chances in this state as ''1/32 of a prayer.''

The Callister Case: Last Dec. 23 in Idaho Judge Marion Callister ruled that the extension granted to the ERA is illegal and that recisions by states that had previously passed the amendment are legal. The National Organization for Women appealed this decision, calling for an expedited consideration of its appeal.

On Jan. 25 the US Supreme Court granted a ''stay'' on the case, which means that the Idaho District Court's opinion will not hold until the Supreme Court has tried the case. However, it denied NOW's request that the case be expedited.

NOW attorney Phyllis Segal says she plans to file briefs in mid-March, though she cautions that the case may not come to trial before next autumn. Asked if NOW would proceed even if ERA is defeated, she replied, ''We have confidence in this case, and intend to carry on.''

ERA advocates contacted for this article all emphasized their willingness to ''carry on'' despite defeat.

Ruth Hinerfeld echoed what others in both camps feel: ''The ERA has politicized many women. I think you're going to see more women paying closer attention to their state legislatures and more women running for office.''

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