April 29, 2010 | by Lou Chibbaro Jr.
Dem senators from Dakotas, Virginias leaning ‘yes’ on ENDA

A gay lawmaker in Virginia said he has ‘every confidence’ that U.S. Sen. Mark Warner ‘will do the right thing and support’ the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. (Photo courtesy Warner’s office)

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.

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

9 Comments
  • This is really too much. I am sick of the Dems in Congress putting off votes on pro-LGBT legislation like ENDA, and damn right we want a vote on the bill even if it fails, because then we will know who stands with us and who opposes equality for gay & lesbian Americans. I suspect the Democratic leadership doesn’t want to hold a vote because it will reveal the Homophobes within the Democratic Party, who more often than not vote with the Republicans against the LGBT community’s interests. In short, they are afraid the LGBT community will stop contributing to the Democratic Committees who routinely give our money to homophobic Democrats, most of them Blue Dogs, who vote against us most of the time. We need to spell it out for the Dems, that they must give us a vote on the bills if they want our support, because failure to bring the bills up for a vote is just as worthless as doing nothing at all. If the Dems continue to do nothing they can count on me and my partner to cut them off entirely, no money, no volunteer work, and no votes.

  • Awesome reporting, Washington Blade! Keep up the incredible work, Lou Chibbaro! This is exactly the kind of information our community needs to know.

  • What we ALL need to do is call our U.S. Senators and members of the House of Representatives at 202-224-3121, identify ourselves as their constituents from their districts/states, and urge them to co-sponsor AND pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA). 3 phone calls (one for each of our two senators, and one for our member of the House). Then we all need to get 10 pro-equality friends to do the same. Spread the word. Call Congress at 202-224-3121. Pass ENDA.

  • The longer the vote on ENDA is delayed the slimer its prospects to pass. We face the strong probability that more conservatives opposed to ENDA will win seats in November, making it even tougher to get enough votes to pass the bill and get it to Obama to sign. I am really frustrated with the Democrats squandering so much time in voting on this measure with excuses like healthcare legislation has to be first. There is always an excuse and there is never a right time. If Dems hadn’t waited so long to bring this to a vote then incumbents wouldn’t have to worry so much about voting in favor of the bill due to the November elections!

    That said, with the GOP in power you don’t even get a chance to vote on a pro-gay bill. The stalwall every step of the way. They disgust me with their hypocrisy of asking for a “fair” up and down vote on conservative appointments to the court yet won’t let a pro-gay bill get a fair vote when they can hold it up.

    I’m still really concerned with the gender identity provision in this bill. Several legislators and anti-gay groups have been stirring hysteria against gender identity as a reason not to vote in favor of the bill and I don’t feel enough education or progress has been made by transexuals to defuse that. Gays and Lesbians have decades of progress in that area over trangenders and to expect people to just shelve their prejudices on trangenders that easily maybe unrealistic. I hope we don’t lose simply because trangenders make the difference.

  • When I know the damn bill is actually going to be voted on by the House and Senate then I will lobby my legislature. What good is calling them now when they have nothing to vote on? We are so in the dark with the progress of this bill that it’s upsetting!

    Sadly, DADT gets more news coverage, and push than ENDA when ENDA benefits alot more people in our community that lifting DADT since only a minority are in the military!

    • We must advocate/lobby/call now AND later. Members of the House and Senate need to hear from as many pro-ENDA constituents as possible as soon as possible. They need to hear from us in order for the bill to come up for a vote — NOT the other way around. Call Congress at 202-224-3121. Call your Senators and Representative. Identify yourself as a constituent and urge them to co-sponsor, vote for, and pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. Spread the word to have friends call. Pass ENDA now.

  • I live three blocks from the United States Capitol building, but as a DC resident I have nobody there to call. I’ve never lived anywhere other than DC since I was old enough to vote. Who should I email? Who should I call? Eleanor? I wouldn’t need to call her even if she COULD vote. She’s ALWAYS on our side (you rock, Eleanor!). So where to DC residents, a key demographic of this publication, address our frustrations?

    • If you live in DC, contact 5 or 10 friends who live outside of the district and ask them to call their Senators and Representative at 202-224-3121 in support of ENDA.

  • Calling Congress at 202-224-3121 and asking to be connected to your senators and representative to encourage support for ENDA really does work.

    Senator Jim Webb of Virginia agreed to Co-Sponsor ENDA after much citizen-lobbying — constituents talking with his staffers, etc. Our senators and representatives need to hear from us directly, reminding them there is broad bipartisan support for the bill among everyday Americans. This is perhaps the most important thing we can do to get ENDA passed this year, contacting our Senators and Representatives.

    Call Congress at 202-224-3121. Spread the word to all of your pro-equality friends if you want ENDA to pass this year. We can do it.

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