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.”