July 22, 2010 | by Chris Johnson
Has the gay agenda been shelved?

On the long-stalled Employment Non-Discrimination Act, U.S. Rep. Barney Frank said ‘we’re still trying to figure out a way to get that done.’ (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

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.”

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

6 Comments
  • Barney Frank and Nacy Pelosi are pathetic. With friends like them, who needs enemies?

  • With respect, Mr. Johnson, as Twain said: “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.”

    Your sentence should read: “This year, a measure that COULD lead to repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell seems likely to reach President Obama’s desk,” not “WOULD lead.”

    As you know, after the Commander-in-Chief agreed to President Gates’, excuse me, SECDEF Gates’ demand that he force our allies in Congress to trash the five-year old proposed Military Readiness Enhancement Act [which he'd promised on the campaign trail to PERSONALLY start fighting for as soon as he took office], thus gutting ANY guaranteee that discharges will EVER end, he also forced them to agree to Gates’ second demand that even repeal of the law be tied to a delayed trigger that Gates can refuse to pull.

    Thank you.

  • R L Pete Housman

    In the game of chess when do the pawns just stop playing and either leave the field or unite and just kick castle, bishop and crown off the board?

  • Wow, its pathethic how overly-optimistic Rep. Frank and the HRC are in portraying the prospects for passing any other LGBT-related legislation, aside from the (potential) repeal of DADT, by the end of the year. I highly doubt Congress will attempt to deal with any other LGBT items before November.

    Let’s face it, the Democrats in Congress could have set a better timetable to start the repeal of DADT, pass ENDA, and the Hate Crimes law within the first two years of Obama’s presidency, but they didn’t. They could have attached ENDA as an amendment in any other bill (like they did with the hate crimes law), but they chose not to. Also, let’s stop pretending the democrats have any courage to repeal DOMA. Some do, but I think our prospects for repealing that horrible law will have better chances in the legal system rather than with politicians.

    Furthermore, this Govt. Domestic Partners bill is brand-new. There’s no way that the three gay members of the House have had enough time to educate their straight counterparts in Congress.The United American Families Act may have had a better shot of becoming law if Obama and the democrats were willing to really push for immigration reform, but now that seems unlikely before November. If the REpublicans take over either chamber of Congress, you can bet they’ll resort to the same old playbook of not allowing LGBT-related legislation out of committee and onto the floor for a vote.

    It’s an utter shame that Obama and these Congressional Democrats could not get their act together and pass ENDA, which would have benefited ALL gay and lesbian folks. Instead we get hate crimes (only useful if you get injured by a gay-basher) and perhaps, the repeal of DADT (but that affects only some gay and lesbian folks).

    One more thing, when is the HRC and Rep. Frank going to push to include LGBT folks in anti-discrimation laws regarding housing and public accomodations?????? There are NO pieces of legislation with lovely little innocuous names to deal with the very real problem of heterosexuals discriminating against LGBT people in housing and public accomodations (meaning, you can get kicked out a restaurant or hotel if a heterosexual owner has a problem with you).

  • The LGBT Agenda has most definitely been shelved for this year, and so ends the Obama administration’s first 2 years with vitually nothing to show for it in regards to LGBT rights being advanced. What happened to the Dems in Congress who failed to vote on our bills and what about Obama (our fierce advocate)??? True enough, if the Dems don’t at pass (or at least hold a vote) on the Domestic Partnership Benefits & Obligations Act and ENDA this year they can forget about me voting for them. I certainly won’t vote for the Republicans, but I may well vote Green or write-in a candidate, because I don’t believe in rewarding people who deceive our community. Only the Pro-Gay Progressive Democrats deserve our support this year, and that rule applies to Obama and the Dems in 2012 as well.Its simple really, no votes on Pro-LGBT legislation equals no support for Obama and the Dems in 2010 & 2012.

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