LGBT rights supporters see room for passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act in the U.S. Senate during the upcoming Congress — even as Republican control of the House makes final passage of the legislation highly unlikely.
The 2010 elections left the Senate in Democratic control — although by a reduced margin — providing an opportunity for passage in that chamber if certain conditions are met.
A Republican aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said passage of ENDA in the Senate is “possible” provided that President Obama strongly advocates for its passage.
“You would need the kind of push that you had behind ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,'” the aide said.
Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, said “in theory” the Senate could pass ENDA because Democrats retained control of the chamber, although the conversations haven’t taken place yet about moving the bill forward.
Keisling added that the Senate is in a different position than it was in the previous Congress because it’s no longer trying to pass legislation that is being sent over by the House. With Republican control of the lower chamber, the Senate would be more inclined to vote on its own legislation.
“I don’t think of any us know what the Senate is going to be like this year,” she said. “The Senate wasn’t moving a lot of stuff regularly last Congress, but now that they have a different Democratic caucus, the Senate is now in a different position than they were before.”
Fred Sainz, vice president of communications for the Human Rights Campaign, said the prospects of ENDA passing in the Senate are “unknown” at this stage, but said his organization will continue to pursue all important pieces of legislation in both chambers of the next Congress.
“We think that it is important whether or not there’s Republican or Democrat control of the House that there would be a factual record that those pieces of legislation have been approved with even more co-sponsors in them,” Sainz said.
As it was introduced in the last Congress, ENDA would bar job discrimination against gay and transgender workers in most situations in the public and private workforce. Gay Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) introduced the legislation in the House and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) introduced the bill in the Senate.
The legislation stalled in the last Congress and saw no movement in either the House or the Senate. In the House, there was speculation that opponents would use a maneuver called the motion to recommit on the floor to target the transgender language and derail the legislation. Then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she wouldn’t bring ENDA up for a vote until legislative action was complete on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
Entering the early days of the 112th Congress, activists are uncertain about the timeline for moving forward with ENDA the next time around, such as when the bill would be introduced or when hearings might take place. Julie Edwards, a Merkley spokesperson, said the senator plans to reintroduce the legislation, although she said she doesn’t yet “have a sense of timing.”
Whether Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) would bring up the legislation for a vote remains in question. Regan Lachappelle, a Reid spokesperson, said the majority leader supports ENDA, but said “Republican cooperation” will be necessary “to do anything.”
“It’s still early right now, so we’re still working on the schedule for this Congress, but it is something that he supports,” she said.
A Democratic aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the possiblity for action on ENDA in the Senate would become more clear following the week on Jan. 24 when Senate leadership makes it decisions on what the legislative priorities will be.
Even if it were passed in the Senate, most observers agree that the new Republican leadership makes passing ENDA highly difficult — if not impossible. Passage in the Senate could be a symbolic vote that would build momentum in a future Congress.
Keisling said the legislation has “zero chance” of making its way to Obama’s desk because of Republican control, citing a recent Washington Blade interview with Frank in which he said there was no chance of passing any pro-LGBT legislation this Congress.
“I never say never, but I can’t imagine the circumstances in which it’ll be signed into law this Congress,” she said.
The Republican aide said just because a clear path to passage doesn’t exist in the House, advocates shouldn’t give up on moving forward in the Senate.
“You have to approach this as kind of putting bricks in the wall,” the aide said. “With hate crimes, we were lobbing it left and right for years … but that also set us up to deal with passing it rather quickly when everything happened because we were able to say it passed the Senate five times.”
Sainz said emphasizing that ENDA is at its core a “jobs” bill could enable it to pick up support in the Republican House.
“From that sense, it should appeal to members of the House — and the Senate for that matter — because it’s really doing nothing more than putting people to work, and if they can’t work, then they’re reliant on government assistance,” Sainz said. “So it should be fairly intuitive to Republicans that this is really a ‘jobs’ measure.”
At the end of the last Congress, ENDA had 45 co-sponsors in the Senate, although former Sens. Roland Burris, Ted Kaufman, Edward Kennedy and Paul Kirk were listed as co-sponsors even though they were no longer in the Senate at the end of last year. Former co-sponsors Arlen Specter, Chris Dodd and Russ Feingold have since left the Senate.
It remains to be seen whether their successors would support ENDA, although new Democrats Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Chris Coons (D-Del.) would be likely to support the legislation. Sens. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), Scott Brown (R-Mass.), Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.) support “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal and may also support ENDA. The offices of those senators didn’t respond to the Blade’s request for comment.
Kate Dickens, a spokesperson for Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), said the senator’s positions would be consistent “with his position on it while serving in the House — where he has been a supporter.”
One lingering question is whether a bill that includes protections on the basis of sexual orientation only — excluding the gender identity and expression provisions — would stand a better chance in the Senate or have a shot at passing in the House. In 2007, the U.S. House under Democratic control passed a non-inclusive ENDA that never saw a vote in the Senate.
The Republican aide said discussion about removing the transgender protections is a moot point because activists wouldn’t permit the removal of the legislation.
“They’re not going to, so I don’t even think it’s worth considering,” the aide said. “It’s just not worth saying ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ If it’s going to pass, it’s going to pass with the transgender in it. That’s all there is to it.”
Keisling said she thinks both a trans-inclusive and non-trans inclusive bill would have the same zero chance of making it through the House.
“There’s this weird notion that somehow Congress is fine with gay people,” she said. “It’s just not true. You saw how they tried to lay down in the road over ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’ If Congress was so good with gay people, why are 90 percent of the gay congress people closeted?”