September 11, 2013 | by Chris Johnson
Advocates see momentum for ENDA, other bills
Rea Carey, NGLTF, National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, immigration reform, gay news, Washington Blade

Rea Carey of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force said she wants action on comprehensive immigration reform.  (Photo by Kathy Plate)

As lawmakers return from August recess, advocates are anticipating movement on pro-LGBT legislation in the Senate during the upcoming weeks, although the Employment Non-Discrimination Act appears to have the most momentum.

The long-pursued legislation to bar anti-LGBT job bias passed out of committee in July on a bipartisan basis and supporters of the bill are expecting a vote sometime this fall.

Michael Cole-Schwartz, spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign, said ENDA is the legislative focus for the organization as well as for the multi-group Americans for Workplace Opportunity campaign it formed after the panel vote.

“Obviously the congressional calendar has many agenda items but we fully expect to see a Senate vote on ENDA in the fall and we’re working with our partners in the Americans for Workplace Opportunity campaign to build support for this critical bill,” Cole-Schwartz said.

But when ENDA will come up in the Senate this fall remains unclear. The office of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), hasn’t responded to multiple requests from the Blade to comment on the timing for an ENDA floor vote since the bill was reported out of committee. Reid has previously pledged in a Pride statement this year to bring up the legislation “soon.”

Allison Preiss, spokesperson for the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee, echoed remarks from HRC by saying panel Chair Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) is hoping a vote would take place this fall, but wasn’t more specific.

“Chairman Harkin is also optimistic that this fall, the Senate will consider the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which passed the HELP Committee on a bipartisan basis and includes for the first time protections against discrimination based not only on sexual orientation but on gender identity as well,” Preiss said.

Christian Berle, legislative director for Freedom to Work, said the time has come for a Senate floor vote on ENDA because the organization believes that sufficient lobbying has occurred to reach the 60-vote threshold required to overcome a filibuster.

“Based on Freedom to Work’s outreach to Senate Republicans since ENDA passed out of the HELP Committee, we are confident that we have the 60 votes necessary to advance and pass this critical legislation,” Berle said. “It is now time for Senator Reid to keep his six-and-a-half year old commitment to bring ENDA to the floor of the Senate as soon as possible.”

Moreover, Berle said holding the Senate vote on ENDA as soon as possible is necessary to generate momentum to move the legislation in the Republican-controlled House, where passage of ENDA will be challenging to say the least. Two options that have been floated are attaching ENDA to a larger vehicle bill or a discharge petition.

“The sooner we pass ENDA out of the Senate, the sooner we can begin a robust campaign to get ENDA through the House of Representatives and on the president’s desk,” Berle said. “Whether we attach ENDA to a spending bill in the Senate or launch a discharge petition in the House, we know that we can only win on ENDA if we are willing to try.”

But ENDA isn’t the only piece of pro-LGBT legislation that is pending on the Senate calendar for a vote. The Senate HELP Committee has also reported out education reform legislation known as the Strengthening America’s Schools Act that includes anti-bullying measures known as the Student Non-Discrimination Act and the Safe Schools Improvement Act.

Shawn Gaylord, director of public policy for the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, also said he’s expecting a vote on this legislation in the Senate in the fall.

“GLSEN anticipates ESEA reauthorization to gain momentum in mid to late fall, and our continued efforts to build bipartisan support in both chambers will ensure this LGBT-inclusive bill to be strongly positioned to move forward,” Gaylord said.

Preiss maintained that Harkin is committed to working for passage of the bill, which would reauthorize the Elementary & Secondary Education Act, as she touted the LGBT provisions in the bill.

“Chairman Harkin is committed to working with leadership on a path forward to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the Committee-passed version of which contains a number of important anti-bullying provisions,” Preiss said.

Another LGBT-relevant bill that has been reported out of the committee is the Charlie Morgan Act, which would ensure veterans in same-sex marriages have access to certain spousal benefits.

It’s unclear if this legislation is still necessary now that the Supreme Court has struck down the Defense of Marriage Act and the Obama administration has said it would no longer enforce Title 38, which had barred gay veterans from receiving these benefits. Jeff Frank, a spokesperson for the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs Chair Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), said he doesn’t have any predictions about the bill.

Also on the docket is the fiscal year 2014 financial services appropriations bill. That legislation contains a provision inserted by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) that would prohibit LGBT discrimination in the juror selection process for federal courts.

Reid’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on when — if it all — these pro-LGBT measures would come up for a Senate floor vote.

Many other bills related to the federal government’s recognition of same-sex unions are also pending even in the wake of the Supreme Court decision against DOMA, although none besides the Charlie Morgan Act have yet to be approved by committee.

The most prominent among them is the Respect for Marriage Act, which was introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and would fully repeal DOMA. Advocates say that legislation to ensure married so gay couples can reap federal benefits of marriage that are still in question if they marry in one jurisdiction and move to a state that doesn’t recognize same-sex marriage. Among these benefits are Social Security benefits and veterans benefits.

A Senate Judiciary Committee aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) has plans for action on the legislation in committee this fall.

“Chairman Leahy is committed to a full repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, which is why he is working with Sen. Feinstein on the Respect for Marriage Act,” the aide said. “We are in the process of pushing for quick implementation of the Windsor decision, and look forward to a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the bill later this fall. After the hearing, the Chairman will consider moving legislation through the committee.”

Other pending pro-LGBT legislation before the Senate that hasn’t seen committee action is the Housing Opportunities Made Equal (HOME) Act, which is sponsored by Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and would bar discrimination against LGBT people in housing programs. Another bill sponsored by Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) known as the Tax Parity for Health Plan Beneficiaries Act would ensure gay couples in civil unions won’t be taxed on employer-provided health benefits.

Even if these bills pass the Senate, it remains to be seen whether they  can muster enough support to pass in the Republican-controlled House. But it’s not unprecedented. Earlier this year, under significant pressure from women’s advocates and other groups, the House passed reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act with protections for LGBT victims of domestic violence.

Bills in the House that currently lack Senate companions are the Social Security Equity Act, which would allow Social Security benefits to flow to gay couples; post-”Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” legislation known as the Restore Honor to Service Members Act; and a bill to help LGBT homeless youth known as the Runaway & Homeless Youth Act. Another version of the Domestic Partnership Benefits & Obligations Act is expected to be introduced imminently by Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.).

Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, said while issues like Syria may dominate the discussions among lawmakers in the coming weeks, she still expects them to advance legislation to help LGBT people and other social justice causes.

“While the situation in Syria is understandably front and center for Congress — especially as putting our brave service members, including LGBT service members, in harm’s way is being considered — members of Congress must also simultaneously focus on vitally important domestic issues as they return from recess,” Carey said. “These include job and economic security issues such as the urgent passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and freedom and justice issues such as comprehensive and inclusive immigration reform.”

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

3 Comments
  • There's one question that's yet to be answered: Assuming ENDA can get through the Senate, hat the strategy for getting the bill through the House? Unless there's a credible path to the President's desk for ENDA, this is all just political theatre.

  • his confusing assemblage of bills have been filed for decades. It's time to UNITE behind a ONE-BILL Strategy that adds SO&GI to all existing civil rights laws at once – making us EQUALLY protected under law from discrimination. Then all these various players could get on ONE PAGE and maybe actually pass something. Otherwise, this just looks like more dangling of elusive promises for 2014 electoral politics. Tired of these games? Take the Pledge for Full LGBT Equality – joining over 200 groups from 45 states – to LEAD the way. http://www.actonprinciples.org/thepledge.

  • This is ALL political theater to keep LGBT engaged for the mid-terms. Let's hope this means that the REAL plan is to do a big civil rights bill – that includes our FULL EQUALITY – in 2015 – regardless of whether we win or lose the House campaign.

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