A small corps of LGBT political insiders, speaking on condition that they not be identified, believe the Employment Non-Discrimination Act is headed for almost certain defeat this year because supporters can’t line up the 60 votes in the Senate needed to overcome a filibuster.
Breaking what some have called an informal code of silence adopted by mainline LGBT political organizations, at least four sources familiar with the gay and transgender civil rights bill said the lack of Senate votes became clear long before Republican Scott Brown won his upset victory last week in Massachusetts.
“What we’re hearing is there is just no clear path to pass ENDA in the Senate,” said one activist familiar with the bill’s lobbying effort. “They don’t think they have 60 votes to pass it.”
Another source with ties to Capitol Hill and national LGBT political groups based in Washington was more definitive.
“ENDA has been off the agenda since before the Massachusetts election because they couldn’t secure the votes in the Senate,” the source told DC Agenda.
The bill would bar private sector employment discrimination based on an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
Opposition to the gender identity provision, included to help protect transgender people, is among the contributing factors that’s prevented supporters from lining up the needed 60 votes to break a filibuster, one of the sources said.
The Human Rights Campaign, National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, and National Center for Transgender Equality — three leading groups working on ENDA — say they are confident the House of Representatives will pass ENDA in the summer or early fall.
Officials with HRC and NCTE have said they remain hopeful that Democrats and a few moderate Republicans in the Senate will unite to defeat a filibuster and pass the long-awaited LGBT civil rights measure.
“I’m still optimistic,” said veteran transgender activist Mara Keisling, executive director of NCTE. “The Senate’s always been the harder challenge on every piece of legislation, not just on LGBT legislation. So the Senate’s a challenge; we’ll get there.”
As of this week, the bill had 194 co-sponsors in the House and 44 co-sponsors in the Senate. Only two of the Senate co-sponsors are Republicans: Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, both from Maine.
When combined with its lead sponsor in the House, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), and the lead sponsor in the Senate, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), the measure has what most observers believe to be at least 195 certain votes in the House and 45 assumed votes in the Senate.
Frank and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), a longtime supporter of ENDA, have said they were confident that backers would line up more than the 218 House votes needed to pass the bill.
But in the Senate, LGBT civil rights lobbyists have been reluctant to reveal the findings of their highly confidential head counts, including leanings of the 17 Senate Democrats that have not signed on as co-sponsors. Among them are Sens. Jim Webb and Mark Warner, both of Virginia.
A longtime practice in Washington lobbying has been to hold off on publicly disclosing the names of lawmakers who are uncommitted or say they are leaning against a bill, with the hope that they could be persuaded to change their minds. If a lawmaker is pressured to publicly declare his or her position, the lawmaker is less likely to switch positions out of fear of being labeled a flip-flopper, according to seasoned lobbyists and members of Congress.
One of the sources who told DC Agenda that ENDA appears dead in the Senate said that groups like HRC, the Task Force and NCTE are diligently working behind the scenes to line up more Senate Democrats to commit to voting for cloture, the parliamentary procedure used to end a filibuster. Sixty votes are needed to invoke cloture.
Most political observers believe supporters have the 51 votes to pass the bill in the 100-member Senate, if a filibuster can be broken.
Allison Herwitt, HRC’s legislative director, was circumspect about ENDA’s prospects in the Senate in an interview earlier this month with DC Agenda.
“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 provision could be a problem in the Senate, Herwitt said, “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.” She added that HRC is pushing hard for a “fully inclusive bill.”
Spokespeople for the Task Force, National Stonewall Democrats, Lambda Legal Defense & Education Fund and the ACLU’s LGBT Rights Project did not return calls this week seeking comment on the reports that ENDA backers may be unable to break a Senate filibuster.
Jim Manley, a spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), said it’s too soon for Reid to assess ENDA’s chances on the Senate floor because the bill has yet to be reported out of committee.
Last November, the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee, chaired by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), an ENDA co-sponsor, held a legislative hearing on the bill. At the time of the hearing, Harkin promised to hold a markup hearing on the bill this year, but he did not set a date for the markup.
Markup hearings are required under both House and Senate rules for making final revisions of bills before voting in committee to send them to the floor for a vote by the full House or Senate.
“In the hearing, Sen. Harkin said that he wants to move the bill this year,” said Bergen Kenny, Harkin’s press secretary, in an e-mail this week to DC Agenda. She did not respond to questions about when Harkin would hold the markup or whether he was aware of reports that supporters lacked the votes to break a filibuster.
Julie Edwards, Merkley’s press secretary, pointed to a statement by Harkin at the legislative hearing last November that he would like to see the bill moved to the Senate floor in the spring of 2010.
“I would say that’s the goal,” Edwards said. “That’s what we’re working toward. We continue to reach out to other offices. I know supporters of this legislation are doing the same.”
Asked if Merkley believes he has 60 votes to break a filibuster, Edwards said, “We haven’t done a whip count on this. But we’re continually building support for the bill.”
Although many Capitol Hill observers think the House will pass ENDA sometime this year, Frank raised concerns among some activists earlier this month when he told the Advocate that lawmakers still have problems with the bill’s transgender provision.
“There continues to be concerns on the part of many members about the transgender issue, particularly about the question of places where people are without their clothes — showers, bathrooms, locker rooms, etc.,” the Advocate quoted him as saying.
“We still have this issue about what happens when people who present themselves as one sex but have the physical characteristics of the other sex, what rules govern what happens in locker rooms, showers, etc,” he said.
Frank was out of the country on House business this week and could not be reached. His press secretary, Harry Gural, said Frank’s comments to the Advocate should not be interpreted to mean that the congressman feels the bill is in trouble in the House.
“They don’t expect a holdup on this,” said Gural, who added that no one familiar with the bill believes an attempt will be made to remove the transgender provision.
He was referring to a blowup in 2007, when Frank and House Democratic leaders determined there weren’t enough votes in the House to pass a trans-inclusive version of ENDA. At Frank’s urging, House Democrats introduced and pushed through the full House a revised bill that didn’t include protection for transgender people. The bill died a year later when the Senate failed to act on it following an outcry by many activists urging the Senate not to pass it.
“Barney said that is not going to happen this time,” Gural said.