May 3, 2014 at 10:04 am EDT | by Chris Johnson
Ros-Lehtinen won’t sign ENDA discharge petition
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen supports marriage equality (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen has vowed not to sign a discharge petition for ENDA (Blade file photo by Michael Key).

As proponents of non-discrimination protections for LGBT workers seek ways to institute them at the federal level, one Florida Republican is throwing cold water on one means of advancing the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), an original co-sponsor of ENDA in the U.S. House, said through a spokesperson that she would not sign a discharge petition to force House leadership to move the bill to the floor.

“Rep. Ros-Lehtinen will not be signing a discharge petition as it is a partisan political tool,” said Keith Fernandez, a Ros-Lehtinen spokesperson.

The Washington Blade reached out to all seven Republican co-sponsors of ENDA in the U.S. House to ask whether they’d be willing to sign a discharge petition, but Ros-Lehtinen’s office was the only one that responded.

In addition to Ros-Lehtinen, the Republican co-sponsors are Reps. Richard Hanna (N.Y.), Charlie Dent (Pa.), Jon Runyan (N.J.), Michael Grimm (N.Y.), Michael Coffman (Colo.) and Chris Gibson (N.Y.).

Ros-Lehtinen’s refusal to sign a discharge petition for ENDA means that the potential procedural move is almost certainly doomed. A discharge petition requires 218 signatures to move a bill forward, which is the same as the number of votes required to pass a bill in the House.

In the Republican-controlled House, at least some Republicans would be needed for the discharge petition to reach the 218 number to move ENDA to the floor. It’s hard to see how any other Republican would sign the petition if the original Republican co-sponsor of ENDA has vowed not to sign it.

Tico Almeida, president of Freedom to Work, said in response to Ros-Lehtinen’s position that “several options” remain to move ENDA in the House.

“Others include attaching it to the defense authorization bill and also pushing for a straight-up vote once we demonstrated that there are 218 supporters,” Almeida said. “We will keep pushing forward on all fronts.”

A House vote is all that’s necessary to send ENDA to President Obama’s desk; he has pledged to sign it. The bill passed last year in the Senate on a bipartisan basis, but continues to languish in the House.

Asked whether there’s any value in moving forward with a discharge petition even though Ros-Lehtinen says she won’t sign it, Almeida replied, “No option should be taken off the table.”

But there are difficulties with other options as well. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has continually said he opposes the legislation when asked if he would allow a vote on the bill. Members of the LGBT Equality Caucus who met with him at the start of the year said he told them it wouldn’t come up before Election Day, although some lawmakers left thinking a vote in the lame duck session is possible.

As for the defense authorization bill, that path didn’t work for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal in 2010. Republicans twice filibustered a vote on the defense bill with the repeal component. It wasn’t until repeal was removed that both the defense authorization and legislation to repeal the military’s gay ban could pass on their own.

Placing a measure inside the defense authorization bill did work for the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act in 2009, but that was when Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress.

Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo), who’s gay and chief sponsor of ENDA in the House, told the Blade last month at the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund’s annual brunch that a discharge petition may happen at some point with ENDA.

“We’re currently pushing one for immigration reform,” Polis said. “If the speaker and majority leader continue to fail to schedule a vote on ENDA, a discharge petition could be our only outlet to get it to the floor. It would still continue to be an uphill battle because ultimately for a discharge petition to succeed, you need 218 signatures.”

Asked at what point a discharge petition would become necessary, Polis said, “At this point, we’re focused on adding co-sponsors to show that it has support.”

There have been mixed reactions to the idea of a discharge petition in Congress. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) endorsed the idea as a means to advance ENDA in the House during a news conference immediately after Senate passage of ENDA. But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said during a roundtable with LGBT press he doesn’t think a discharge petition would work because if it got close to 218 names, House leadership would back away additional Republican signers.

Under pressure because Obama hasn’t signed an executive order to bar LGBT workplace discrimination among federal contractors, the White House has hinted it supports the idea of a discharge petition. In March, Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, said, “We would welcome efforts to bring this legislation to the floor for a vote.”

Fred Sainz, vice president of communications for the Human Rights Campaign, said his organization isn’t disappointed that Ros-Lehtinen won’t sign a discharge petition, but didn’t elaborate. The Human Rights Campaign has not endorsed the idea of a discharge petition.

Gregory T. Angelo, executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, said he supports Ros-Lehtinen’s position on the discharge petition as other ways to pass ENDA are on the table.

“We support Rep. Ros-Lehtinen’s position,” Angelo said. “While all options should be on the table for passage of ENDA, a discharge petition is the option of last resort, and our options to pass ENDA are far from exhausted at this point. These Democrats need to hold their horses, otherwise they run the risk of turning what has been bi-partisan progress on ENDA into a polarizing political fight.”

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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