All but one of the Democratic senators from North Dakota, South Dakota, Virginia and West Virginia who are uncommitted on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act appear to be leaning toward voting for the bill, according to LGBT activists.
The six Democratic senators from the four states are among 16 uncommitted Senate Democrats that LGBT lobbyists say will play a pivotal role in determining whether ENDA will be enacted into law this year.
“I’m fairly confident our senators will vote for it,” said Joshua Boschee, a member of the North Dakota Human Rights Coalition, which advocates on behalf of gay and non-gay issues.
Boschee was referring to North Dakota Sens. Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan, who are both Democrats. The two, along with Sens. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), Mark Warner (D-Va.) and John Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) are said to be good candidates to vote for ENDA.
Activists from West Virginia, however, are less certain about Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), who has declined to say how he will vote on the bill.
If passed, ENDA would ban job discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in most employment situations. It does not apply to businesses with fewer than 15 employees, religious organizations and the military.
The Human Rights Campaign, which is coordinating formal lobbying efforts for the bill, has said at least 53 senators were expected to vote for ENDA. But the group’s deputy legislative director, David Stacey, said it’s uncertain whether 60 senators can be lined up to defeat a filibuster, which Republican opponents were expected invoke to kill the bill.
As of two weeks ago, HRC and ENDA supporters in the House of Representatives predicted the bill would reach the House floor this spring. But last week, gay U.S. Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), a strong ENDA supporter, told LGBT activists he was uncertain when the bill would come up for a House vote.
Polis made his comments to protesters with the group GetEqual, who on April 15 interrupted a hearing held by the House Committee on Education & Labor, which has jurisdiction over ENDA.
The protesters boisterously called on Rep. George Miller, the committee’s chair, to hold an “immediate” committee vote to send ENDA to the House floor. Polis, a member of the committee, motioned for the protesters to follow him outside the hearing room, where he said he would talk to them about ENDA.
According to Polis, whose remarks were recorded on GetEqual cameras, ENDA supporters in the House want to ensure there are enough votes to kill any Republican-sponsored motion to recommit ENDA to committee. The video’s audio quality of the video is poor, and not all of Polis’s remarks to the protesters could be heard.
“The congressman was saying that [House Democratic] leadership needs to make sure they have the votes lined up to fight off any motion to recommit, not that they don’t have the votes to pass the bill,” said Lara Cottingham, Polis’s press spokesperson. “He is confident that we will get to a floor vote, but wants to make sure it is done in the right way.”
One possible motion to recommit the bill to committee could force the House to hold a recorded up-or-down vote on whether the transgender provision should stay in the bill, a vote that some House members fear could hurt them at the polls in the upcoming congressional elections, according to some Capitol Hill observers.
Gay Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), ENDA’s lead sponsor in the House, told the Washington Blade this week that he remains optimistic about the bill’s overall prospects in the House. But he repeated concerns he raised earlier in the month that not enough people in the LGBT community are being aggressive enough in lobbying their representatives to vote for the bill.
He said too many people in the gay community “want to play prognosticator and not do the lobbying.”
“We are in a fight,” Frank said. “The [House] leadership is committed. We have a large number of votes. What we need are people to call their representatives and tell them to vote for this and then call their senators.”
He said the decision by protesters to disrupt Miller’s committee hearing “was about as unhelpful as could be,” and described the protesters as “people with Tea Party envy.”
Robin McGehee, co-chair of GetEqual, said Miller and other House Democratic leaders keep postponing the projected date for a committee markup on ENDA, which is required before it can reach the House floor for a vote.
“We get a different story from them every week,” she said. “We’re trying everything. We’ve lobbied, we’ve written letters, we’ve made phone calls and now we’re going to start using direct action. The reality is Miller is not taking action as it is, so the only alternative we have is to take action against him.”
Frank said two weeks ago that he favors holding a House vote on ENDA even if it’s uncertain the bill would pass or supporters could beat back a harmful motion to recommit. He noted that it’s important for the LGBT community to have such a vote.
But an aide to the House Democratic leadership, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said this week that an ENDA vote would not be held if there aren’t enough votes to pass it.
“We’re not going to bring it up if it will fail,” said the aide. “That would be harmful to the bill’s prospects in the future.”
But Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality and an active lobbyist for ENDA, said she agrees with Frank that a House vote on ENDA should be held regardless of whether its passage is absolutely certain.
“We are so close, and we’re certainly over the top on the overall bill,” she said. “Whatever bill goes to the House floor will pass. So it’s a question of how close we are to assurances on hypothetical motions to recommit.
“All of them at this point are entirely hypothetical. And there’s no way to be absolutely positive because the motion to recommit could be something we didn’t anticipate,” Keisling said. “It could be something that is not a big deal to us.”
Keisling noted, however, that if there is an attempt to delete the transgender provision from the bill, she’s optimistic that the bill’s supporters will have the votes to defeat such a motion.
She said that for other bills, Democratic leaders have sometimes pulled the bill off the House floor if it appears they don’t have the votes to kill a damaging motion to recommit and that the motion to recommit is deemed unacceptable. She noted that would happen in the unlikely development that ENDA supporters don’t have the votes to defeat a motion to recommit that’s deemed unacceptable.
Amid the House uncertainty, activists are increasingly hopeful for the bill’s prospects in the Senate.
Boschee of North Dakota noted that the North Dakota Senate recently passed a state version of ENDA that includes a transgender protection provision. Although the state’s House of Representatives defeated the bill, Boschee said its approval in the state Senate has generated new energy among LGBT advocates in the state, prompting greater support for the version of ENDA pending in Congress.
“We are asking state senators who voted for the state bill to lobby our congressional delegation” on ENDA, Boschee said.
And Karen Mudd, an official with Equality South Dakota, a statewide LGBT advocacy group, said the group is optimistic that Johnson will vote for ENDA, even though he’s declined to sign on as a co-sponsor of the bill.
“Sen. Johnson’s staff has been very receptive to our requests that he support ENDA,” Mudd said. “He has a policy in his Senate office of non-discrimination based on sexual orientation. We’re asking him to expand that to include gender identity.”
In Virginia, Sen. Jim Webb, a Democrat, signed on as an ENDA co-sponsor earlier this year. Warner, his Democratic colleague in the Senate, has so far declined to co-sponsor the bill. But LGBT activists say Warner has expressed general support for a federal non-discrimination bill covering gays, and they are hopeful that Warner will vote for a trans-inclusive ENDA this year.
“I’ve known Sen. Warner for a dozen years,” said Jay Fissette, the openly gay chair of the Arlington County Board. “I have every confidence that he will do the right thing and support ENDA.”
Stephen Skinner, president of the board for the state LGBT group Fairness West Virginia, said his group has been actively lobbying Byrd and Rockefeller on ENDA.
“I am very hopeful that Sen. Rockefeller will vote for it and will soon become a co-sponsor,” said Skinner. “I’m also hopeful that Sen. Byrd will do the right thing on ENDA.”
Skinner said that few West Virginians following the issue expect Byrd to disclose his plans until an ENDA vote occurs on the Senate floor, where he has served for an unprecedented 51 years. Byrd, 92, has served in the Senate and in Congress longer than anyone in U.S. history.
Some Capitol Hill observers think his long record of leaning toward conservative views on social issues might prompt him to vote against the bill or to abstain from voting on ENDA. He was absent from the vote last year on a hate crimes bill that included protections for gay and transgender people.
But one source familiar with Byrd, who spoke on condition of not being identified, speculated that Byrd might vote to defeat an ENDA filibuster, even if he votes against the bill itself. A vote against a filibuster would, in effect, be a vote for the bill since ENDA supporters believe they have more than the 50 votes needed to pass the bill in an up-or-down vote.