The champion of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act in the U.S. House is joining the choir of those who assert that the bill would pass — if Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) allows it to come to the floor.
Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), who’s gay and co-chair of the LGBT Equality Caucus, predicted during an interview with the Washington Blade Friday that ENDA would pass the House and said the next step for the bill is to pressure Republican leaders to bring it to the floor. He added that a number of undeclared Republicans have privately told him they’d vote “yes.”
“The next step is, of course, to continue to apply pressure to the speaker and the majority leader to bring it to the floor, where I’m confident it has enough support to pass,” Polis said. “The best way to do that is to demonstrate it has that support and continuing to add co-sponsors, particularly more Republican co-sponsors to ENDA so that we can have a stronger case to make that we need to bring it before the House to the floor for a vote.”
Although he acknowledged that the House has 13 months remaining in the current congressional calendar, Polis said “it would be nice to act sooner” because as Election Day draws near in November 2014, lawmakers will spend less time in Washington.
Polis said his assessment that the House would pass ENDA is based on the 10 Republicans in the Senate who joined all 54 Democrats present in voting for the measure on Thursday. ENDA would prohibit most employers from discriminating against LGBT workers.
“Slightly less than a quarter of Republicans in the Senate voted for it,” Polis said. “That would be similar in the House. About 20 percent of the Republicans would vote for it, which would give it the majority it needed to pass. A number of Republicans have told me on the floor they would vote for it; they’re not ready to add their name as co-sponsors. But they’re strongly supportive of this direction.”
Polis envisions that the House would pass ENDA with “between 20 and 40 votes — possibly more,” which he said was along the lines of the margin for House passage of the Violence Against Women Act reauthorization earlier this year. That bill, which included explicit protections for LGBT victims of domestic violence, passed the House in February by a 286-138 vote.
“I think [ENDA] would win by a sizable majority in the House as the Violence Against Women Act did, which included gays and lesbians,” Polis said. “I’m confident that it would pass by that margin.”
According to the Polis, the best way to pressure Republicans to bring ENDA to the floor is the continued growth of co-sponsors for the bill.
“We have 5 Republican co-sponsors and gaining 20 or more is the best way to pressure Republican leadership to bring ENDA up for a vote,” Polis said.
Reps. Terry Sewell (D-Ala.) and Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) both signaled this week they’re coming on board as co-sponsors, according to Polis’ office, bringing the total number of sponsors to 196. That’s just 22 votes short of 218 necessary to pass the legislation on the House floor.
By predicting that ENDA would pass the Republican-controlled House if it came to the floor despite the opposition stated by Boehner earlier this week, Polis joins others who’ve make similar predictions like Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and the Human Rights Campaign. Speaking with the Washington Blade prior to the ENDA vote in the Senate, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), ENDA’s chief sponsor in that chamber, said the Senate-passed version of ENDA “would pass the House.”
Polis said the process for bringing the legislation to the floor would either be House leadership bringing the bill directly to the floor or regular order after a committee vote in the House Education & The Workforce Committee, but Polis said his preference is the former.
“It can go through committee as a House bill, in which case amendments would very likely be added that could change the bill, and it could pass the House, or, the preferred route, which is what we needed on the Violence Against Women Act, is we simply took up the Senate version under a closed rule with no additional amendments and passed it,” Polis said. “That would certainly be the easiest route to achieve a successful result.”
The Education & The Workforce Committee seems as opposed to bringing ENDA to the floor as Boehner is. Even after the calls from Polis and Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) to hold a hearing on ENDA, the committee has remained silent and didn’t immediately respond to a request from the Washington Blade to discuss moving the bill following the Senate vote.
Asked if having 10 Senate Republicans vote for ENDA would encourage House Republicans to do the same, Polis emphasized public support for measures barring LGBT workplace discrimination, which one recent poll showed at 69 percent, would be the driving factor.
“I think there are some members of Congress who want to vote for it because their constituents want it and demand it,” Polis said. “There are gay and lesbian families across America, they want to know that they can’t be fired from their jobs because of who they love, and they let their members of Congress know that — Democrat or Republican. That’s why there’s such broad and immense support on the Democratic side and why it has increased on the Republican side.”
Polis was generally dismissive about ideas for workaround strategies to bring ENDA up on the House floor if leadership doesn’t act, but acknowledged a discharge petition is an option if “the normal process” doesn’t work.
“We’ll have to work with them to schedule it for consideration on the floor, or if the committee, the Education & The Workforce Committee, continues to refuse to schedule it, then there is that avenue available called the discharge petition,” Polis said. “It’s not one that often leads to success, that would be more a final attempt, if we’re unable to get it through the normal order.”
Asked whether inserting ENDA into a larger vehicle, such as the defense authorization bill, would be a strategy to consider, Polis maintained all options are on the table.
“We will look at all the legislative tactics available to us, including different vehicles that we can use to protect gay and lesbian Americans, including discharge petitions,” Polis said. “So, all the different legislative tactics under the rules of the House would be considered to move this important legislation forward.”
Polis, who became the first public official to call on President Obama to issue an executive order barring anti-LGBT workplace discrimination among federal contractors, said that option remains viable for the White House if the House Republican leadership refuses to bring up the bill.
“We want to protect all people in America, but if Congress is unable to accomplish that, I continue to advocate that the president should move forward to issue an executive order to ban workplace discrimination for federal contractors,” Polis said.
Polis called Michaud after coming out
Also during the interview, Polis addressed the recent announcement from Maine Congressman and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mike Michaud that he’s gay. Polis said the news was a surprise to him.
“I had no idea, and called and congratulated him,” Polis said. “It must have been a heavy cross all these years, having to worry about who knew and who didn’t know. I’m sure it’s an enormous load off of his shoulders, and I think he’ll be an even more effective public servant — both in Congress and potentially as governor of Maine.”
The announcement from Michaud, who’s served in Congress since 2003, ends Polis’ distinction of being the most senior openly gay member of the U.S. House. The Colorado Democrat started serving his first term in 2009. Still, Polis remains the longest-sitting member of the House who has served in his seat while being openly gay.
Polis said he hasn’t yet discussed the possibility with Michaud about being a co-chair of the LGBT Equality Caucus as are other openly LGB members of the House, but suggested those conversations may happen when the House goes back into session next week.
“We’ve been in our districts, and I’ll be seeing him for the first time next week,” Polis said. “But when the news came out, I called and we had a nice conversation where I congratulated him and wished him well — and assured him I didn’t think this would be more than a couple days story and said I think people will respect his integrity and his honesty.”
Polis said he hopes Michaud’s announcement will inspire other gay members of Congress to come out.
“There’s not political reprecussions at all for people being honest about their orientation,” Polis said. “Hopefully, members of Congress who have chosen to hold that kind of information close will see that it’s simply easier to live an honest life and be honest with your constituents.”
Asked whether he knows of other closeted gay members of Congress, Polis said he hasn’t asked any of them about their sexual orientation.
“I’ve never asked,” Polis said. “Working with our colleagues, unless they bring it up, you really wouldn’t ask that kind of thing. And I certainly never discussed this before with Mike Michaud.”