April 8, 2010 at 5:22 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
With clock ticking, all eyes on Congress

President Obama joined families on the White House lawn for this week’s Easter egg roll. LGBT rights supporters are calling on him to be more vocal in his support for several key bills still pending in Congress, including repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’ (DC Agenda photo by Michael Key)

Supporters of LGBT rights are turning up the heat on Congress in their efforts to pass several key bills after lawmakers return from recess next week.

Allison Herwitt, legislative director for the Human Rights Campaign, alluded to potential political consequences if the bills don’t advance in this Congress.

“I do think that there will be many LGBT Americans frustrated and disappointed if any of these [bills] don’t move,” she said. “Even though we don’t have a pro-LGBT majority in the House and the Senate — this is our highest majority that we have and we need to obviously capitalize on the members that we have in the House and the Senate to pass legislation. So, in short, I do think that there will be anger in the community.”

Herwitt said this anger would likely manifest itself in LGBT voters feeling disconnected from Congress and from the Obama administration.

This disconnect, Herwitt said, could affect political donations or discourage people from getting involved in re-election campaigns as well as “not door knocking, literature dropping, all that kind of stuff.”

Herwitt also urged a stronger voice from the White House in advocating for legislation like the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and the Domestic Partner Benefits & Obligations Act, as well as repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

“I do think that it is important that the president and the administration do strongly indicate to the House and the Senate their support and their desire to move on ENDA, ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ and DPBO,” she said.

Michael Mitchell, executive director of the National Stonewall Democrats, voiced similar views.

“I think that we’re seeing some — donors are starting to put their money elsewhere or holding off,” he said. “I think that there are rank-and-file folks who are getting frustrated.”

Mitchell said he thinks “we need to remember” that Obama has been in the White House for fewer than 18 months.

“On the other hand, a lot of people have been working on these issues for decades, and people don’t want to wait any longer, and we’ve been laying a lot of groundwork for a very long time and we see this as our window to get this stuff through,” he said.

The November elections are weighing heavily on the minds of LGBT rights advocates. Mitchell said the passage of LGBT bills this Congress is important because of the strong possibility of reduced Democratic majorities.

“The landscape could certainly be more difficult for us, especially if it gets closer in the House,” he said. “I said recently somewhere that [you] only need to look back about 18 months or two years to see how hard it was to pass our agenda when we didn’t have control, and I think it will, again, be like that.”

Key pieces of pro-LGBT legislation in Congress have encountered roadblocks.

Advocates are urging for the inclusion of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal as part of the upcoming defense authorization bill, but whether the votes exist in the Senate Armed Services Committee to attach the provision to the legislation remains to be seen.

President Obama hasn’t spoken publicly in favor of repealing the ban since his mention of the issue in his State of the Union address, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters in response to a DC Agenda question last month that he doesn’t recommend legislative action this year before the Pentagon working group completes it study of the issue.

For ENDA, a House committee markup of the legislation has been pushed back since late last year and still has yet to be scheduled, although advocates are saying activity could happen in April or May. Multiple sources have told DC Agenda that the Senate lacks the 60 votes needed to overcome any attempted filibuster of ENDA.

Problems also plague legislation that would provide benefits to the same-sex partners of federal employees. Supporters of the bill in the Senate have said they won’t move the bill to a floor vote until the U.S. Office of Personnel Management provides information on how it will offset the bill’s costs.

Months have passed since House and Senate committees marked up the bills late last year and sent them to the floors of their respective chambers, but OPM hasn’t yet made the offset information public. The agency didn’t immediately respond to DC Agenda’s request for an update on the situation.

During a panel discussion last week on the U.S. Census, Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, took time from her remarks to urge advocates on Capitol Hill to redouble their efforts.

“The LGBT community is very, very serious about getting all these three things done and it does not yet appear that Congress is serious about it,” she said.

Keisling later clarified for DC Agenda that her comments were “just me saying, ‘Hey pass these things.’ It wasn’t me saying, ‘You guys aren’t passing them.’”

“The clock is running down, but there is still time to do it and we have to demand they do it,” she said. “It gets harder and harder for them the longer they put it off. Health care is out of the way — start getting stuff done.”

The window of opportunity for Congress to act on these bills before lawmakers break to run their re-election campaigns is steadily becoming smaller.

After lawmakers return this month, Herwitt said they’ll work through July before they break again for August recess and then do more work in September and October before leaving to focus on re-election.

Herwitt said she’s heard talk about a lame duck session following the November election, but said she doesn’t “know if that will play itself out or not.”

While concerned about the passage of these bills before the end of the year, advocates are anticipating some activity in the coming weeks when lawmakers return from spring break.

Herwitt said she’s expecting the House Education & Labor Committee to take up ENDA and send it to the floor sometime in April or May.

That timetable would square with remarks Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) made to Karen Ocamb, a lesbian Los Angeles-based journalist, that ENDA would pass committee by the end of April and reach the floor a week or two later.

Herwitt said Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass), the House sponsor of ENDA, has said he’s ready to move forward with the legislation and to have a floor vote.

“This is not new — you even wrote a story about it — the Senate is much more of a challenge for us on ENDA, but I think, at least from HRC’s perspective, getting a strong vote in the House will help us push the Senate forward,” Herwitt said.

Regarding “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal, advocates are working to include the language as part of the Senate version of the defense authorization bill when the Senate Armed Services Committee takes up the legislation in May.

“Either it’s in the chairman’s mark or we do it as an amendment, and that’s why we’re focusing very strategically in some of our key states that coincide with many of the members that sit on the Armed Services Committee,” she said.

In the House, Herwitt said gay rights supporters are pushing for an amendment on the floor to include “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal as part of the defense authorization bill after the Senate committee takes it up.

Herwitt said advocates are looking at a floor vote in the House as opposed to a committee vote because they “are challenged” with the number of conservative Democrats on the panel and the virtually non-existent support from Republicans.

Supporters of repeal, Herwitt said, are “in a very good place to move forward with a vote” in the House. Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.), the sponsor of the House bill, has said he has the votes to pass repeal on the House floor.

“We are always, I think, in a better, or I should say, a stronger position, when both bodies act on whatever provision it is that we’re trying to move forward,” she said. “So I think that we’re in a stronger place if we have the language repealing ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ in the Senate bill and we have a House floor vote.”

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

  • With all of this tough talk, it would be nice if Herwitt (or better yet David Smith) would talk like that to the White House and the Democratic leadership on the hill. She’s made “tough talk” comments to the DC Agenda before, and HRC turned right around and bent over for the White House. If you really want to talk about where the problem is in HRC it’s one level above her, but one level below Joe, as in David Smith.

  • I can’t believe the Democrats still haven’t considered the consequences of blowing us off. If they are still thinking they have us over a barrel with no other place to go they have another thing coming. I certainly wouldn’t vote for the Republicans, but I don’t have to support the Democrat in any given race either. I don’t have to give them my money, volunteer for them, or vote for them, I can just sit home and let them hang the way they are leaving us hanging in regards to passingthe many pro-LGBT bills they promissed us. They had better get busy passing ENDA, the Domestic Partnership Benefits & Obligations Act, and Repealing the rotten Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy, because as it stands now, I don’t see that much enthusiasm within the LGBT community for Obama or the Democrats in Congress, and one does get tired of being thrown under the bus.

  • I think the Democrats believe that we have no other place to go; sadly we don’t. Certainly the Republicans have demonstrated their animus toward our community. We had this one, two-year window with a purportedly pro-gay President and a Congress controlled by Democrats. Yet, pro-gay legislation has continued to languish in Congress (Hate Crimes legislation doesn’t count since it was over a decade in the making). The issue that we must carefully consider — particularly in light of other countries becoming gay-supportive — is are we moving in the direction of becoming fully enfranchised citizens or aren’t we. Unfortunately, the data demonstrates that there is not the political will to support legislation vital to our community. How long is this to be acceptable? I see the following options: stop contributing to the Democratic Party, start aggressive civil disobedience, or move to a more progressive country. As I approach 60, I don’t see this country accepting us in any meaningful way. This is unconscionable. Clearly, we have been let down by Obama and the Congress and been hung out to dry by other minority groups.

    • We do have another place to go. Look at what the LGBTs did in the Philipines. They created their own party and platform. Why do we have to vote with the Dems? We can run our own candidates on our own platform. We may not get many people in Congress the first, second or even third time around, but if we do it right, we can coalition with progressives, liberals and others who would split the Democratic vote and call attention to our issues.

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