Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) maintained on Wednesday that the Employment Non-Discrimination Act would pass Congress, predicting the House “is going to have to capitulate” on the bill to extend workplace discrimination protections to LGBT people.
The Democratic leader addressed ENDA strategy — including prospects for inserting it into the defense authorization bill or a House discharge petition — speaking with a handful of reporters in his office two days after the Senate invoked cloture on the measure, 61-30, saying he expects the chamber to wrap up the legislation by 5 p.m. on Thursday.
Amid concerns that moving the bill in the House would be a non-starter given the Republican leadership’s opposition, Reid said he “wouldn’t be too sure about that.”
“I think the House is going to have to capitulate,” Reid said. “If they have any hope of a president that can be a viable candidate, or they think they can elect some Republicans, and want to hang on to the House, they’ve got issues.”
After saying on the Senate floor Tuesday he thinks the bill would pass the House if it were allowed to come up for a vote, Reid reaffirmed that belief to reporters, saying passage would be “easy.”
“They have five co-sponsors out of like 232; they should be proud of that,” Reid said. “I think virtually all Democrats would vote for that, and you know as well as I do, it’s just a handful of people that they need from Republicans.”
When the Washington Blade noted that one idea for passing ENDA is inserting the language into larger legislation like the defense authorization bill, Reid was dismissive.
Even though the defense bill has passed 52 years in a row, Reid said he’s not sure it can happen this time around given the gridlock in Congress.
Instead, Reid said the better path is to make “one loud chant” to pass the bill along with legislation related to immigration, marketplace fairness, postal reform as well as the farm bill to make the House look like it’s “living in some other world.”
“I think that would be the better way to go, and one that’s realistic,” Reid said. “The other way won’t work.”
Reid said he agreed with comments from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) that a strategy similar to passing the Violence Against Women Act reauthorization in the Republican-controlled House, which she said made the bill “too hot to handle,” could be pursued with ENDA.
Also, Reid dismissed the idea that a discharge petition could be a way to move the bill in the House.
“Nope, I don’t think so,” Reid said. “When they get close to 218, the speaker backs them off, the Republicans.”
But asked by the Blade whether House intransigence might give President Obama room to issue an executive order prohibiting LGBT discrimination among federal contractors, Reid agreed, saying, “I think that that certainly would be the case.”
Reid recalled that President Obama took executive action to help young, undocumented immigrants who would be eligible for relief under the DREAM Act because Republicans have opposed the bill, saying the situation with ENDA could be similar.
Still, Reid said an executive order from Obama to address LGBT workplace discrimination isn’t his preference.
“I would rather try to get it done legislatively first,” Reid said. “I think that would be my first choice.”
Numerous questions came up during the roundtable about the amendments proposed by Republicans to ENDA.
When a reporter brought up the amendment filed by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) that would add a national right-to-work provision to ENDA, Reid said he knew what it was even before the measure was explained to him.
Reid said the measure amounted to a “press release” for supporters of right-to-work “right across the river here,” saying “it was just for them.”
But Reid was more understanding of the amendment proposed by Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) to ensure that the government won’t retaliate against religious organizations that invoke the religious exemption in ENDA.
“I believe it was an effort by them to have a reason for joining the bill,” Reid said.
That measure passed by voice vote shortly after Reid spoke to reporters. LGBT advocates have said that language merely reinforces the status quo and makes no substantive change.
Reid also addressed concerns that the religious exemption in ENDA is too broad because it would give religious organizations greater leeway to discriminate against LGBT people than what is allowed under existing law for the protected categories of race, gender and national origin.
“There’s nothing we do that’s perfect,” Reid said. “The goal is to get something passed, move forward. And this allows us to move forward.”
Asked about the lack of Republican opposition on the floor to ENDA on the day of the cloture vote, Reid said it was “just funny.”
“We were told that it was Cruz who would be the one to give the speech,” Reid said. “I find it terribly interesting that Cruz didn’t know what he would say because we found he was willing to talk about anything. He wasn’t willing to do that.”
Sean Rushton, a Cruz spokesperson, said Reid’s assertion that Cruz was supposed to speak against ENDA is “factually inaccurate.” A source said the senator was in the car racing to make the vote and never had any plan to speak.
Faiz Shakir, a Reid spokesperson, insisted in a follow-up response that Democrats saw Rubio point to Cruz on the Senate floor.
“Maybe it was a joke, we don’t know,” Shakir said.
But Reid had more criticism for Cruz. The majority leader said if he didn’t care so much about the country, he’d want Cruz to become the 2016 Republican presidential nominee “because that would end the Republican Party.”
“They have offended everybody,” Reid said. “Over the years, what they have done to African Americans is really hard to comprehend. Now the new people they’re beating up on is Hispanics, women…and lesbian, gays and the other people we have included in this bill.”
Reid also talked about the significance of including transgender protections in ENDA this time around after they were stripped from the bill when the House voted on it in 2007.
“As I’ve grown on this issue, so have the American people,” Reid said. “One time it was a big deal to people who have tried to understand transgender. That held up this legislation for a while. I’m confident of that. To the credit of the HRC, and other groups, when we wanted to move forward without that, they said ‘no.'”
Reid said HRC has told Congress not to pass a gay-only bill, though the organization continued to support the legislation without the transgender protections in 2007. Since then, HRC has supported ENDA only with transgender protections.
Speaking personally about ENDA, Reid mentioned his three adult grandchildren.
“For me to feel any differently about this, they wouldn’t feel proud of their grandfather,” Reid said. “It’s just with my five children, it’s a non-issue, but for my three adult grandchildren, it’s a non-non-non-issue. They can’t imagine why anyone gives a damn.”
Reid disclosed in an earlier conversation with reporters that he had a lesbian niece. Asked whether he had spoken to her since Senate movement on ENDA, Reid said he hadn’t.
“She called me, left a message when we were able to open the government,” Reid said. “She’s, of course, proud of her uncle. But she and I don’t need to dwell on the issue, she’s just like everybody else.”
Reid, a Mormon, was asked by the Blade how he reconciles his faith, which says homosexuality violates God’s law, with his support for gay rights. Reid replied that he’s given a lot to his church and there are Mormons like him who share his views.
“When I attend church here in Washington, D.C., I bet more people agree with me than disagree with me, and so the church is changing, and that’s good,” Reid said.
In the aftermath of ENDA passage in the Senate, Reid said he’d have to hear from the LGBT community on what the next steps should be, but mentioned bullying as a problem over which he shares concern.
“As I was growing up, somebody who was ‘queer’ was really easy to pick on,” Reid said. “I was not in that category, but I saw it happen, and I didn’t do enough to speak out.”