February 14, 2013 at 12:03 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
37 Senators call on Obama to sign ENDA exec order
Jeff Merkley, Oregon, United States Senate, Democratic Party, gay news, Washington Blade

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) is leading a group of U.S. senators calling on Obama to issue an LGBT executive order (Public domain photo)

A chorus of 37 U.S. senators is calling on President Obama to sign an executive order barring federal contractors from discriminating against LGBT workers amid increased pressure for him to issue the directive.

In a letter dated Feb. 14, first made public by the Washington Post’s Greg Sergeant, the group of 37 senators — led by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) — identifies themselves as supporters of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and ask Obama to take administrative action against anti-LGBT workplace discrimination.

“Issuing an Executive Order that includes sexual orientation and gender identity is a critical step that you can take today toward ending discrimination in the workplace,” the senators write. “By expanding protections for LGBT employees of federal contractors, you would be helping to ensure that all Americans get an equal opportunity to succeed and that federal taxpayer dollars are used to support companies with the best employment practices.”

In addition to Merkley, who has sponsored ENDA in the Senate, signers of the letter include longtime members of the chamber who’ve supported the bill, such as Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Senate Health, Labor & Pensions Committee Chair Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who pledged to move the ENDA legislation out of committee this year.

New faces to the Senate have also signed the letter, including Sens. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), William Cowan (D-Mass.), Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). Lesbian Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), the only openly gay member of the Senate, is also a signer. No Republicans signed the letter, but an Independent, Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), penned his name.

As noted by the letter, a report from the Williams Institute from February 2012 estimated such an executive order would protect an estimated 16 million workers from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. But the report also estimates the pool workers who are actually LGBT within the 16 million is smaller, and between 400,000 and 600,000 people.

Shortly after the news broke on the letter from 37 senators, the Leadership Conference on Civil & Human Rights, a coalition of more than 210 civil rights groups, announced it had also sent a letter to Obama calling for the executive order.

The Feb. 14 letter, cosigned by the Leadership Conference’s CEO Wade Henderson and Executive Vice President Nancy Zirkin, recalls Obama’s inaugural address in making the case for the directive.

“The Leadership Conference agrees with your recent remarks in your second inaugural address that ‘our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law,’ and believes that issuing an executive order to ban federal contractors from discriminating against LGBT employees helps promote equality for all individuals under the law,” Henderson and Zirkin write.

Since April, the White House has repeatedly said it won’t issue such a directive at this time and prefers a legislation approach to protecting LGBT workers against discrimination as opposed to executive action.

Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, said Obama continues to support ENDA in response to the Washington Blade’s request to comment on the letters.

“The president has long supported an inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) and his administration will continue to work to build support for it,” Inouye said. “We welcome Chairman Harkin’s announcement that he will hold a vote on ENDA this year.”

However, the Washington Post reported on Sunday that Obama is thinking about reversing that decision if Congress doesn’t act. On Sunday, activists affiliated with the LGBT grassroots group GetEQUAL held a protest in front of the White House calling on Obama to take action on the directive.

In a statement, Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, reiterated his organization’s position that the executive order could provide immediate relief to LGBT workers as ENDA languishes in Congress.

“An executive order from President Obama would ensure that hundreds of thousands of LGBT federal contract employees could go to work every day without fear of being fired for who they are or who they love,” Griffin said. “I am grateful to these leaders in the Senate for speaking out on behalf of LGBT Americans who want nothing more than a fair shot at a job.”

The letter is similar to another letter that 72 House Democrats wrote to Obama in April calling on him to issue the non-discrimination directive. Shortly after the House members sent that letter, the White House first announced it wouldn’t issue such an executive order against anti-LGBT job discrimination at this time.

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

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