A Colorado congressman who’s set to become the most senior openly gay member of the U.S. House is pledging to take the lead on perhaps the most high-profile piece of pro-LGBT legislation: the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.
Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) said during a Washington Blade interview on Tuesday that he intends to become the chief sponsor of ENDA following the retirement of gay Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who’s championed the bill since 2007.
“I plan on introducing the Employment Non-Discrimination Act in the next session,” Polis said. “Across our country, gays and lesbians face discrimination in the workplace and lose their jobs and their livelihood. It’s wrong and it’s got to end. People shouldn’t be fired in this country just because of who they date in their private life.”
In addition to taking the lead on ENDA, Polis said he’ll remain the chief sponsor of another pro-LGBT measure called the Student Non-Discrimination Act — legislation based on Title IX that would prohibit the bullying and discrimination of LGBT students in school.
Polis said he still wants to see President Obama issue an executive order requiring federal contractors to institute LGBT-inclusive non-discrimination policies. The White House said Obama wouldn’t issue the directive at this time in April, but it’s unclear where that stands in the wake of Election Day.
“I, of course, believe that the White House should move forward with preventing discrimination toward contractors,” Polis said. “That’s always been my position.”
Polis became the first public official to go on record in support of the executive order when he told the Blade during an interview in March 2011 that he’s behind the idea.
And Polis has other goals. He’s weighing a run for a seat in the House Democratic leadership as vice chair of the Democratic caucus — and his win would be another milestone because no member of the LGBT community has ever been elected to House leadership.
“I’m still looking at doing that,” Polis said. “I think it would be great to have more diversity in our caucus leadership. There’s never been a member of the LGBT community in caucus leadership.”
But Polis said he isn’t certain if he’ll make the bid and is waiting to see what positions other House Democrats are seeking. One lingering question is whether House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) will continue her role as head of the caucus.
“A lot of members of the caucus are waiting to see who’s returning and who’s running for the different positions, so until that’s known, there’s no definitive candidacy, but I certainly have been talking to a lot of members about it and I’ve got a lot of encouragement from them,” Polis said.
House Democrats are set to vote on caucus leaders on Nov. 29. The vice chair ranks just below the House Democratic caucus chair. In addition to other duties, the vice chair has a seat on the Steering & Policy Committee, which assigns committee membership to Democrats and advises them on policy decisions.
The current vice chair of the House Democratic caucus is Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.), but he’s expected to leave that role to pursue the position as caucus chair. Polis may have competition if he launches a bid to replace him. Other names that have been mentioned as possibilities as vice chair are Reps. Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.) and Barbara Lee (D-Calif.).
But as far as movement on pro-LGBT bills, Polis was pessimistic — either during the lame duck session or next year at the start of the 113th Congress — as long as Republicans remain in control of the House. Polis said the votes may actually be present in the Republican-controlled House to pass LGBT bills, but the problem is Republican leadership prevents the measures from coming to the floor.
“We have bipartisan support whether it’s ending workplace discrimination or my Student Non-Discrimination Act or housing non-discrimination,” Polis said. “Those would be very close votes if they were put to the House as a whole, but Republican leadership has refused to allow those bills to even advance to the floor.”
One possible way to skirt House leadership would be to move pro-LGBT bills to the floor via a discharge petition. If a majority of House members sign a discharge petition for any particular bill, it would go to the floor regardless of the desire of House leadership. Polis acknowledged that route as a possibility, but was skeptical about its chances.
“We can certainly file one,” Polis said. “Certainly in my time in Congress and long before it, there has never been a successful discharge petition … There certainly hasn’t been one in my time, or in the immediate past before my time.”
That last successful discharge petition was more than 10 years ago for the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, which later became known as McCain-Feingold, in 2001.
But the situation in the Democratic-controlled Senate is a different story. As in the 111th Congress, which saw a Senate committee vote on the Respect for Marriage Act and a hearing on ENDA, Polis said some progress could be made on pro-LGBT bills in that chamber — and possibly a successful floor vote on some bills.
“You’d have to ask a senator about that, but I think they could forge a majority of senators to move forward on passing the bill out of the Senate,” Polis said. “That doesn’t mean that [House Speaker John] Boehner or [House Majority Leader Eric] Cantor would take it up in the House, but at least we’d have it on record as passing the Senate.”
Despite the divided government, one initiative that may see progress in the 113th Congress is comprehensive immigration reform. House Speaker John Boehner has signaled he may be willing to work on this legislation in the wake of Republican losses and the party’s poor showing among Latino voters on Election Day.
LGBT advocates are interested in comprehensive immigration reform and are seeking a provision enabling gay Americans to sponsor their foreign partners seeking residency in the United States. Standalone legislation that would address this issue is known as the Uniting American Families Act.
But Polis, who’s also been a leading advocate for comprehensive immigration reform, said he’s unsure at this time what provisions could be made part of the bill and whether the legislation would include the pro-gay language sought by LGBT immigration advocates.
“At this point, besides a few words of encouragement from Speaker Boehner, I really don’t know what an immigration package would look like,” Polis said. “I’ve long been active on this issue and would love to see comprehensive immigration reform, but we need to see what the Republicans are willing to agree to and we haven’t even seen the starting point for that discussion even.”
CORRECTION: An initial version of this article said Joe Donnelly was in contention as House Democratic vice chair. The Blade regrets the error.