The limited time remaining in the legislative calendar for this Congress is raising questions about whether lawmakers will pass any further pro-LGBT bills before year’s end — and whether it will be politically feasible to pass such bills next year.
Congress advanced LGBT-related legislation last year when it passed hate crimes protections. This year, a measure that would lead to repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” seems likely to reach President Obama’s desk.
Still, some LGBT activists and voters are frustrated that Congress has taken no action to advance the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. Supporters of the legislation have said several times a vote was imminent, but no such action has yet been taken.
Other pending measures include the Domestic Partnership Benefits & Obligations Act, which would allow LGBT federal workers to receive spousal benefits for their same-sex partners, as well as the Uniting American Families Act and repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act.
Further complicating the situation is the specter of reduced Democratic majorities in the next Congress — or even a Republican takeover — and whether measures unaddressed this year would be viable in 2011.
Despite the limited time remaining this year, some LGBT rights supporters are hopeful that Congress will move forward with additional legislation. U.S. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), a gay lawmaker and House sponsor of ENDA, expressed optimism about the bill passing the House this year.
“That’s going to be next thing we’ll turn our attention to,” Frank said. “We have the speaker’s support and we’re still trying to figure out a way to get that done.”
The scheduling for a House vote on ENDA remains an issue. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi earlier told the Blade that a House vote on ENDA wouldn’t occur until Congress finishes legislative action on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
Drew Hammill, a Pelosi spokesperson, said ENDA remains “a top priority for the speaker,” but a vote on the bill before work on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is complete “jeopardizes both initiatives.”
“Until then, we should encourage the Senate to develop a course for ENDA to ensure that when the House passes the legislation, the Senate can move quickly to send the legislation to the president’s desk,” Hammill said.
Frank said efforts toward repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” displaced ENDA in the batting order for Congress because the fiscal year 2011 defense authorization bill came to lawmakers before a vote could happen on ENDA.
“If the defense authorization hadn’t come up earlier, we might have been able to do ENDA first,” he said.
Frank noted that he thinks the votes exist in the House to pass a trans-inclusive ENDA, but he wouldn’t give a timetable for when the legislation would move forward in Congress because he didn’t want to tip off opponents of the bill.
Michael Cole, a Human Rights Campaign spokesperson, said a House vote on ENDA is among the pro-LGBT items his organization has pressed for in the time remaining in this year’s legislative calendar.
“We’re certainly interested in seeing the House take a vote on ENDA,” Cole said. “We’ve been advocating for that for a long time, and as recess comes, we’ll be doing a lot of work to make sure our members are getting in touch with members of Congress to push for a vote on it.”
But if the House manages to pass ENDA this year, getting the legislation through the Senate remains a significant challenge. Sources have said 60 votes are lacking in the Senate to overcome a filibuster on the legislation. Also, because the Senate allows non-germane amendments, opponents of the bill could attach additional measures in an attempt to block its passage.
Still, Frank said he believes passage of ENDA in the Senate remains a possibility.
“If you ask them if they think they can pass it, they’ll say ‘no,’ so the important thing to do is for us [in the House] to try [to] pass it and send it over there, so they can’t just avoid it,” Frank said.
Activists also foresee a possibility of passing the Domestic Partnership Benefits & Obligations Act before year’s end.
Cole said the legislation, as well as the Tax Equity for Health Plan Beneficiaries Act, which would eliminate the tax penalty paid on employer-provided health insurance for domestic partners, could be made part of upcoming omnibus authorization or appropriations bills.
“We’re following what the plans appear to be on the Hill to see how we might be able to get those pieces of legislation [advanced] as part of them,” Cole said.
Frank also acknowledged the possibility of passing the Domestic Partnership Benefits & Obligations Act and said that legislation is “in serious conversation.”
Still, Frank noted the bill comes with a price tag — estimated at one time by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management to be $56 million a year — and that concerns associated with raising the federal deficit may cause problems in passing the bill.
Frank said finding a way to offset the legislation’s cost remains an issue for the Domestic Partnership Benefits & Obligations Act and “we have to find a way to pay for that.”
Whatever progress this Congress makes on passing pro-LGBT bills, recent polls are casting doubts on whether enough Democratic lawmakers will retain their seats next Congress to pass such bills.
Several recent polls have shown considerable opposition toward Democrats and the Obama administration as persistent unemployment and concerns about government spending linger across the country.
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs gained media attention and inspired consternation among Democratic House members when, during an appearance earlier this month on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” he said Republicans could regain control of the House.
“I think people are going to have a choice to make in the fall,” Gibbs said. “But I think there’s no doubt there are enough seats in play that could cause Republicans to gain control. There’s no doubt about that.”
Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, is projecting that Republicans will win seven seats in the Senate and 32 seats in House after the election.
Because of this potential shift, Sabato said passage of more pro-LGBT bills next Congress is unlikely if it doesn’t happen this year.
“If these pieces of legislation don’t pass now, when both houses have swollen Democratic majorities, they certainly aren’t going to pass in the next Congress, when Democrats will have narrow majorities, or even be in the minority,” Sabato said.
Sabato said the loss of a half-dozen Democratic seats in the Senate could be enough to “kill these bills” entirely in the next Congress because proponents wouldn’t be able to find 60 votes to thwart a filibuster.
But Frank said the possibility of passing more pro-LGBT legislation in a future Congress is unknown because the fallout of the November elections is yet to be seen.
“I don’t think there’s any question there will be Republican gains in both chambers,” he said. “But what kind of gains? How much? Three senators? Eight senators? Fifteen representatives? Thirty-five representatives?”
Frank also said some members of Congress that would lose in the upcoming election wouldn’t “be supportive of ENDA anyway.”
Additionally, he said Congress could more easily take up other pro-LGBT bills in the future after items like hate crimes and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” are off the table.
“To some extent, the more you have to work on, the harder it is to do any one of them,” he said.
Cole said although no one knows what the future holds for support for pro-LGBT legislation after year’s end, he noted several supportive incumbents are in danger of losing their seats.
“The thing to keep in mind, though, is cobbling together a pro-LGBT majority for any piece of legislation has never been a slam dunk,” Cole said. “It’s not necessarily about party affiliation — it’s about people who have taken stances toward equality measures.”