January 14, 2010 | by Chris Johnson
Great expectations as Congress returns from recess

As lawmakers hash out the 2010 legislative schedule for Congress, LGBT rights supporters are anticipating a House markup for the long-sought Employment Non-Discrimination Act within the next month.

Sources familiar with Capitol Hill said the House Education & Labor Committee will take up ENDA, which would bar job bias against LGBT people in the public and private workforce, shortly after lawmakers return from holiday break.

Last year, House and Senate committees held hearings on legislation that would provide workplace protections for LGBT people. The next step in both committees — the Education & Labor Committee in the House and the Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee in the Senate — is reporting out the legislation so floor votes can take place.

Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), a gay lawmaker who serves on the House Education & Labor Committee, said he’s expecting a markup of the legislation either this month or in February and a floor vote soon after.

“Once it’s been marked up in committee, it’s simply a matter of scheduling it for the floor, and that of course depends on what else is coming to the floor, whether it’s health care or what[ever] it is, but it shouldn’t take very long,” he said.

Also expecting an ENDA markup in the House shortly is Allison Herwitt, legislative director for the Human Rights Campaign.

“We’re hopeful that it will be either January or February and we’re pushing for that,” she said.

Still, it’s unclear exactly when the House committee will take up the legislation. Aaron Albright, spokesperson for the House & Education Labor Committee, said, “nothing has been scheduled yet.”

Meanwhile, in the Senate, Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), who sponsors ENDA in that chamber, has said the HELP Committee will take up ENDA in the spring, but Herwitt said the timing in the Senate “is a little less clear.”

“I think that we’re going to talk to [Chair Tom] Harkin’s staff people, committee staff and try to figure all of that out, what’s the timeframe that they’re looking at, how will we envision the bill moving forward in the Senate,” she said. “I mean, obviously, the Senate provides us more challenges in moving legislation, especially when it is freestanding.”

Advocates are committed to passing a version of ENDA that provides protections on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

The inclusion of transgender people in ENDA has been a sensitive issue. In 2007, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) came under fire for pushing a version of ENDA that provided protections only on the basis of sexual orientation, saying at the time that Congress lacked the votes to pass an inclusive bill.

This year, the situation is different. Polis said lawmakers expect to pass “an inclusive ENDA that includes protections based on gender identity.”

Herwitt expressed similar optimism that the House would be able to pass ENDA with protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

“I think that we’re in a really strong place in the House,” she said. “I think that, again, when we look at our vote count for final passage, it looks good for a fully inclusive bill.”

Still, Herwitt said conversations are more nascent on the Senate side regarding ENDA and the inclusion of gender identity provisions.

“We have education that we need to do and have conversations,” she said. “I know that Sen. Merkley and his staff have been really on top of this, and having those conversations staff-to-staff — and the senator is having colleague-to-colleague conversations. And we just need to continue some of that process and then see where we are with the vote count.”

Asked whether the gender identity provisions could be a sticking point in the Senate, Herwitt replied, “I think what I’m saying is we’re still in the process of figuring all of that out. The conversations are still happening, the education process is still ongoing and obviously we want to make sure that the bill moves forward when it can move forward as a fully inclusive bill.”

Activists want DADT repeal in budget request

The repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the 1993 law that prohibits openly gay people from serving in the U.S. military, is also a primary focus for LGBT rights supporters on the Hill.

Advocates are urging President Obama to include language that would overturn the law as part of his defense budget request to Congress for the next fiscal year. The request is expected to be made public early this year.

The Servicemembers Legal Defense Network on Tuesday published a full-page ad in Roll Call newspaper calling on Obama to include repeal in his budget request. Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, writes in the letter that Obama should include repeal in his budget request to stay true to the promise he made to end the ban last year during a speech at an HRC dinner.

“There is no good reason why this White House would pass up this opportunity,” Sarvis said. “It is the logical place to get rid of the discriminatory ban. We urge the president to make good on his words on the campaign trail as well as those said last October when he emphatically declared, ‘I will end Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’”

Herwitt said HRC also wants Obama to include repeal of the ban on open service as part of his defense budget request.

“We have been working to make that a reality,” she said. “We are hopeful and it has been part of our plan. We think that having the White House put the policy recommendations through [the] DOD [budget request] forward is important and key.”

Whether the budget request will, in fact, include language that would repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” remains to be seen. Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, wouldn’t confirm whether administration officials would include such language in the budget request.

“As we are in the midst of the policy process for the FY 2011 Budget, it would be premature to comment on its contents,” he said.

Another bill pending in Congress is the Domestic Partnership Benefits & Obligations Act. The legislation — approved late last year by both House and Senate committees — would allow the same-sex partners of LGBT federal workers to receive the same benefits as the spouses of straight workers, including health and pension benefits.

But the timing for a floor vote is not yet clear. Herwitt said she doesn’t know when floor votes would take place and said HRC is “working with our allies in the House and the Senate to try and figure out what is the schedule, what are they looking at.”

Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), the sponsor of the bill in that chamber, said last month a floor vote wouldn’t take place until lawmakers receive cost offset information from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management for implementing the measure within the agency’s existing budget.

Leslie Phillips, spokesperson for the Senate Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs Committee, which has jurisdiction over the legislation, said Tuesday that lawmakers have “not yet received the offset information from OPM.” The agency didn’t respond to DC Agenda’s request for comment.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

7 Comments
  • Chris, thanks for the update.

    This echo’s what I hear internally within HRC. However, with out a public date set for markup of ENDA in Ed/Labor I am not rushing to yell ‘yippee’. Plus as Allison says, we still have a lot more work to do within the Senate and thus I see a much more difficult time to secure passage there.

    Meghan

  • Personally, I am tired of waiting. I have been voluntering for the Democrats, giving them money and voting for them consistantly, and they made us several promises which they have thus far, not delivered on. I can almost see this dragging out due to all the attention being given to other issues and then right before the election they will tell us they can’t vote on our “controversial bills” and that we should wait until next year. Well I can tell you that that won’t cut it with me and my partner. Either we get ENDA and the Domestic Partership Benefits & Obligation Act passed this year or the Dems can forget about any more support from us! I’m not saying vote Republican, God forbid, but its definitely no money, support or vote if they don’t keep their promises to us.

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