April 15, 2010 at 4:53 pm EST | by Lou Chibbaro Jr.
16 Democratic senators uncommitted on ENDA

U.S. Rep. Barney Frank said ENDA supporters should ‘call senators and lobby them’ to help build momentum for the bill in the Senate. (Photo by Joe Tresh)

With supporters of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act expecting a favorable House vote on the measure in May or June, LGBT lobbyists are turning their attention to 16 Democratic senators who have yet to sign on as co-sponsors of the legislation.

The bill, also known as ENDA, bars employment discrimination based on someone’s actual or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity.

Its supporters say it’s needed to end job discrimination in 29 states, where it remains legal to fire or refuse to hire someone who’s gay, lesbian or bisexual. Supporters also note that employers in 38 states can fire or refuse to hire someone solely because of their gender identity or expression, a practice the bill would similarly prohibit.

Multiple sources have told DC Agenda that supporters in the Senate don’t appear to have the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster that Republican opponents are expected to invoke to block an up or down floor vote.

“I’ve tried to get a sense of what’s going on here,” said Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), ENDA’s lead sponsor in the House. “But I think the best thing I can do about the Senate and ENDA is to get it passed [in the House] and send it over there.”

Frank’s advice for ENDA backers worried about the Senate is to “call senators and lobby them” rather than dwell too much on “arm chair strategizing.”

But with the 2010 congressional elections fast approaching, only two GOP senators have so far committed to vote for ENDA, making it essential for supporters to line up most of the 16 uncommitted Democrats to secure the bill’s passage in the Senate.

Nearly all political observers predict the Democrats’ majorities in the House and Senate will shrink as a result of the November election, making it far more difficult to pass ENDA and other LGBT rights bills next year.

As of this week, there were 45 Senate co-sponsors of ENDA, along with chief sponsor Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), bringing the total committed votes to 46. Of the 46, 42 are Democrats and two are independents. Maine senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins are the only Senate Republicans that have signed on as co-sponsors.

Thirty-nine Republican senators have declined to co-sponsor the bill compared to the 16 Democrats who chose not to become a co-sponsor. Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) signed on as a co-sponsor on March 10, reducing the number of uncommitted Democrats from 17 to 16.

For the first of a series of reports on the Democratic senators uncommitted on ENDA, DC Agenda contacted experts and activists in the states that five of those senators represent, seeking to assess how they would vote if the measure reaches the Senate floor sometime this year.

The five senators include Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), Thomas Carper (D-Del.), Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), and Clare McCaskill (D-Mo.). Spokespeople for the five did not return calls this week seeking to determine their position on ENDA.

Many political observers in Arkansas believe Lincoln is facing an uphill fight in her re-election bid, with the state’s lieutenant governor, Bill Halter, challenging her in the Democratic primary. As of April 1, each of four Republicans seeking the nomination to oppose her in the general election was ahead of her in a Rasmussen public opinion poll by margins of 51 percent to 36 percent.

Officials with the state’s sole statewide LGBT group, Center for Artistic Revolution, did not respond to calls for comment by press time.

Hastings Wyman, editor of Southern Political Report, a recognized authority on politics and elections in the South, said support for ENDA would not help Lincoln in the current political environment.

“I can’t say how she would vote on ENDA, but the politics would say it would help her if she did not vote for it,” he said.

Wyman noted that Pryor, who is not up for re-election this year, has a record as a moderate on most issues, even though he projects an image of a conservative Democrat.

“I would not be surprised if he voted for it,” he said.

Steve Elkins, executive director of Camp Rehoboth, an LGBT advocacy group and community center in Rehoboth Beach, Del., said he has spoken with Carper at gay-related events and believes the state’s senior senator would vote for ENDA.

“He has been to Camp Rehoboth and has attended a number of LGBT events,” including meetings of the state’s LGBT Democratic group, Stonewall Democrats of Delaware, Elkins said. “There is no reason for me to think he would not vote for the bill.”

Delaware’s other senator, Democrat Ted Kaufman, who was appointed to fill the Senate seat vacated when former Sen. Joe Biden was elected vice president, is an ENDA co-sponsor.

By comparison, Indiana political consultant Mark St. John, a member of the board of the statewide LGBT group Indiana Equality, said Bayh has a longstanding reputation as a cautious politician and has yet to give any indication of how he would vote on ENDA.

“I wish I had a better answer,” he said. “Evan is certainly Mr. Cautious on that issue … but this is not to say he would vote no on ENDA. He has always held his cards close to his chest.”

St. John said Indiana Equality is lobbying Bayh to support both ENDA and a proposal to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the law that bars gays, lesbians and bisexuals from serving openly in the military.

Although McCaskill’s office has not responded to at least two inquiries from DC Agenda seeking her position on ENDA, A.J. Bockelman, executive director of the Missouri statewide LGBT group Promo, said McCaskill told members of the group at a meeting in Kansas City in February that she supports ENDA and would vote for it.

“We have talked to her office about the trans provisions in the bill and she is OK with that,” Bockelman said.

Sources familiar with ENDA have said several senators and House members raised objections to the transgender provision, a development that prompted Frank to work with transgender activists to come up with proposed revisions in the bill’s language pertaining to gender identity. The changes are expected to be disclosed when the House version of the bill is marked up in committee in late April or early May.

“Everyone signed off on the changes,” said one transgender activist, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “We’re not crazy about them, but they’re acceptable and they’ll help us get the bill passed.”

Lou Chibbaro Jr. has reported on the LGBT civil rights movement and the LGBT community for more than 30 years, beginning as a freelance writer and later as a staff reporter and currently as Senior News Reporter for the Washington Blade. He has chronicled LGBT-related developments as they have touched on a wide range of social, religious, and governmental institutions, including the White House, Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, the military, local and national law enforcement agencies and the Catholic Church. Chibbaro has reported on LGBT issues and LGBT participation in local and national elections since 1976. He has covered the AIDS epidemic since it first surfaced in the early 1980s. Follow Lou

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  • CAR, the statewide group in Arkansas has so far been unable to get a firm refusal or committment to sponsor the bill.

    In a letter to a constituent Senator Lincoln initially compared ENDA to special rights. Upon being called to task Senator Lincoln retreated from that position, but did not satisfactorily explain nor defend it.

    To date the best we can get from either Senator is that they will review the bill and make their decision in the best interest of their constituents.

    Senator Lincoln will most likely not support the bill. She is under a tremendous amount of fire here in Arkansas from supporters as well as her opposition. We don’t expect her to draw additional fire to herself with ENDA. In Arkansas we continue to face strong opposition to any measure of equality for LGBTQ people.

    We are less certain of Senator Pryor taking an anti-ENDA position. But again, we have not been able to get a clear answer. We are working in collaboration with the NW Arkansas Center for Equality and Stonewall Democrats via our joint Arkansas Allies project we continue to press both Senators.

    We did attempt to respond to the voice mail message left by this article’s reporter, but were unable to reach the reporter. Regrettably his voice mail did not work to take our message.

    Randi M. Romo
    Executive Director
    CAR – A Vehicle for Change

  • Bradley Rymph

    This reinforces my certainty that I made the right decision in not donating funds to either Democratic Congressional campaign committee or to the DNC. If I had, they would be using my money to support the re-election of pseudo-Democrats who do not deserve to be re-elected. I profoundly hope that Blanche Lincoln loses her primary to Bill Halter. If not, I would just as soon as have real Republicans in the Congress as have phony Democrats who vote like Republicans.

  • Tim

    To my mind, it is entirely unacceptable for Democratic members of the Senate or House to vote against ENDA, no matter how much they wish to appeal to their conservative/Republican constituents, who quite frankly won’t vote for them if they support or oppose ENDA anyway. When are the Dems going to get the massage that it doesn’t do them any good to try to appease the right-wingers as they alienate themselves from their own liberal supporters. The reason the Dems are in trouble this year has more to do with them cutting their own throats in this way than it does some resergence of strength on the political right. The Dems lost in Virginia because the Democratic candidate for governor wanted to paint himself as a conservative, and in so doing he lost the support of the liberal base, most of whom stayed home. Remember that our insane Republican Governor McDonnell won in an election where there was only a 19% turnout. And if its one thing I’ve learned, it is that Republicans always show up on election day, with Democrats typically being less motivated. The same thing happened in Massachussetts with Scott Brown’s win, where the Tea Party clowns claimed it was a surge of growing support against the Democratic agenda, but remember it was a very close election, and a special election where Republicans always turn out and Democrats usually don’t. Polling after the election also showed that most of the Dems who voted for Obama in the previous election didn’t show up in the special election in part because they were frustrated with the slow pace of reform, not because they opposed it.
    In regards to ENDA’s chances, we might also be surprised to see newly elected Senator Scott Brown vote in favor of the bill, as he has to run again in 2012 when Obama is up for re-election and can’t win in a high profile general election with a bigoted voting record. Simply put, he needs to move to the left the way Collins and Snowe do in Maine, (the two Republicans the article cited) if he wants to get re-elected. The biggest problem in the end is waking the Democrats up to the need to support ENDA. My own Senators Webb & Warner, here in Virginia have been a source of frustration, but Webb has since signed on as a cosponsor. Now its Senator Warner’s turn, and if he is foolish enough to vote against ENDA he can surely count on me closing my checkbook to him and likewise voting against him when he comes up for re-election, because I won’t support a Representative or Senator who isn’t willing to support ENDA.

  • Jillian Weiss

    Here’s more info on these Senators:

    Unconfirmed US Senator contact info: http://bit.ly/45WGMc

    US Senate ENDA Spreadsheet: http://bit.ly/14TDll

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