The junior senator from Oregon introduced the Employment Non-Discrimination Act in the U.S. Senate on Thursday as he voiced support for an executive order that would bar the federal government from contracting with companies that don’t have their own workplace protections for LGBT people.
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) endorsed the idea of an executive order an as interim alternative to passing ENDA during a news conference on Capitol Hill in response to a question from the Washington Blade after he announced the Senate introduction of the legislation
“Certainly, I share the perspective that it would be tremendous to accomplish this by legislation,” Merkley said. “But I also feel that this is a conversation that is going to reverberate at a number of levels. You have counties, you have state action and certainly, I feel, it’s a legitimate possibility, and I would support the president saying that contractors who are beneficiaries of federal funds should in fact practice non-discrimination, so I would support that.”
The executive order endorsed by Merkley has been seen as an interim alternative to ENDA passage while Republicans are in control of the House and progress on the measure in the lower chamber of Congress is unlikely. The White House hasn’t said one way or the other whether Obama would be open to issuing such a directive. Last month, Gay Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) also expressed support for the executive order.
However, Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), an original co-sponsor of ENDA who was present at the conference, didn’t offer the same support for an executive order that was voiced by Merkley.
“I would just say when you have executive action without the statute, then quickly that would be wiped out by the next administration,” Kirk said. “The best way to go is a statute where you have a stable decision that can only be overturned by a subsequent act of Congress.”
Kirk also advised against an executive order because of what he said was a “tremendous of uncertainty right now” in the U.S. economy, which is still climbing its way out of recession.
“If we load executive order upon executive order, all which would be wiped out the day after the president of the other party takes power, you really haven’t advanced the ball much,” Kirk said. “That’s why the legislation is absolutely necessary.”
Merkley endorsed the executive order on the same day he introduced ENDA to the Senate, which as of the end of Thursday had 38 co-sponsors. The legislation would bar job discrimination against LGBT people in most situations in the public and private workforce.
Job discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is legal in 29 states and legal in 38 states on the basis of gender identity. More than 85 percent of Fortune 500 companies already have their own workplace protections based on sexual orientation and more than one-third on the basis of gender identity.
Merkley said passage of ENDA is necessary because the “right to work and earn a living” for all Americans — including LGBT people — is a “fundamental right.”
“It is essential to the success of an individual, it is essential to the success of a family,” Merkley said. “It’s certainly essential to the pursuit of happiness — that value that we place right up front in our Declaration of Independence — and it’s part and parcel of equality under the law.”
Kirk said his support for ENDA, which puts him in the minority among Republicans, fits his model of public service in the image of the late U.S. Senator from Illinois Everett Dirksen, whom Kirk described as a “strong national security conservative, fiscal conservative and social moderate.”
“It was Sen. Dirksen that clinched the deal on the  Civil Rights Act,” Kirk said. “I see this legislation as in that tradition to make sure that our country is a country not of equal outcomes, which would be a Communist state, but of equal opportunities, and to make sure that everyone has that opportunity regardless of orientation.”
A number of LGBT advocacy groups issued a statements on Thursday praising Merkley for introducing ENDA and calling on Congress to take action to pass the legislation.
Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said ENDA passage is essential to ensure LGBT Americans have equal access to the American workplace.
“In today’s economy job security is important to all Americans, especially LGBT people who can be fired for no other reason than their sexual orientation or gender identity,” Solmonese said. ”Passing ENDA is essential to ensuring that all Americans have an equal opportunity to work and contribute to this country’s economy.”
Jeff Krehely, director of the LGBT Research at the Center for American Progress Action Fund, pointed to a 2009 Out & Equal Workplace Survey that found that 44 percent of gay, lesbian, and bisexual people have said they’ve faced workplace discrimination and at least 47 percent of transgender people have made the same claim.
“ENDA will help end this discrimination by requiring workplaces to make their hiring and firing decisions based on a person’s ability to get the job done, and not irrelevant factors such as their sexual orientation or gender identity,” Krehely said.
Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, also reiterated President Obama’s support for passage of ENDA and noted the administration’s previous efforts in pushing for the legislation.
“The president’s support for an inclusive ENDA is well established,” Inouye said. “It’s worth noting that last Congress, when [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] Acting Chairman Stuart Ishimaru testified on behalf of the Obama administration on ENDA before the House Education & Labor Committee, it was the first time that any administration offered its support for this legislation.”
Despite the enthusiasm behind ENDA, most Capitol Hill observers says the legislation’s prospects for passage during the 112th Congress are slim at best. Last week, Rep. Barney Frank, a gay lawmaker, introduced the House version of ENDA as he categorically said the legislation wouldn’t pass with Republicans in control of the House.
A Senate Democratic aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity, was pessimistic about the chances of passing ENDA even in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
“The prospects for passing ENDA in the Senate during the 112th Congress are not great, unless there is a major push from President Obama,” the aide said. “The Senate is narrowly controlled by Democrats, who generally will support ENDA. But unless there are enough common-sense Republicans who can help bring the total to 60 votes to overcome a Republican filibuster, ENDA won’t pass the Senate.”
Despite the challenges facing ENDA passage, the notable Republican support the legislation upon introduction could be a sign of hope. Three GOP senators — Kirk, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) signed on — have signed on as original co-sponsors.
Kirk said he’s hopeful that he can find enough Republican support for the legislation to reach the 60-vote threshold necessary to end a filibuster if the legislation came to the Senate floor.
“I asked Sen. Merkley, ‘Let’s start this out very balanced with members that have reputations to be able to move legislation, and I think we’ve done that today,’” Kirk said.
R. Clarke Cooper, executive director of Log Cabin Republicans, said he talked with Kirk following ENDA’s introduction about finding sufficient Republican support to move forward with ENDA and was told “the votes are there” for passage.
“Our conversation was Senate focused, but could apply to the House as well,” Cooper said.
One possible strategy for passing ENDA in the Senate would be attaching it as an amendment to another legislative vehicle. Such a move could enhance ENDA’s chances for passage because standalone legislation could be vulnerable to hostile amendments on the Senate floor.
The anonymous Senate Democratic aide said ENDA would be fare better as an amendment on the Senate floor as opposed to standalone legislation because “any stand alone bills are tough to pass in the Senate these days.”
During the news conference, Kirk suggested that plans are in place to pass ENDA in the Senate as an amendment to another vehicle. The Illinois senator said he wants to move the legislation “as I’m now learning, hopefully by amendment.”
Following Kirk’s remark, Merkley said ENDA’s proponents have “no specific plans” to pass the legislation as an amendment to another bill at this time, but are on the lookout for potential opportunities to pass legislation that “may have trouble getting to the floor as a freestanding piece.”
Asked whether there would any candidates for legislation that would serve as vehicles for ENDA, Merkley replied, “If only I could forecast all the bills that are going to be on the floor.”
Whatever the prospects for pushing ENDA through both chambers of Congress, LGBT advocates are hoping for progress at least in the committee that holds jurisdiction over ENDA. Supporters of the legislation are already calling on Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chair Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), an original co-sponsor of the legislation, to hold a hearing on the legislation during the 112th Congress.
Tico Almeida, a civil rights litigator at Sanford, Wittels & Heisler in D.C., said a Senate hearing on ENDA would allow LGBT victims of workplace discrimination a public venue to tell their stories.
“Sen. Tom Harkin, chairman of the Senate [HELP] Committee, can and should organize an ENDA hearing during the upcoming year,” Almeida said. “He can and should call one or more transgender Americans to testify at that hearing,”
In response to calls for a hearing, Justine Sessions, a Harkin spokesperson, said is committed to working with Merkley and other co-sponsors to move the legislation forward.
Merkley said he’s spoken with Harkin about an ENDA committee hearing or markup and said he’s “working with him and committee staff about that direction.”
The Oregon senator recalled that in 2009, Harkin held the an committee hearing on ENDA in which Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez, head of the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, represented the Obama administration during the hearing.