June 10, 2010 at 7:39 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
In Congress: Many bills, but no timetable for progress

Congress could be poised to pass several pro-LGBT bills in the months that remain in this year’s legislative calendar, although Capitol Hill observers say the schedule for when the bills would see votes remains unclear.

In the wake of successful votes late last month to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Congress could see momentum to pass other major legislation, such as the Domestic Partnership Benefits & Obligations Act and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.

Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) said in an interview with the Blade this week that she had renewed optimism about the domestic partner benefits bill, which she sponsors in the House.

“One issue that got renewed momentum over this Memorial Day recess was my bill to provide domestic partnership and obligations to federal employees and their partners,” she said.

Baldwin, the only out lesbian in Congress, said the issue received additional attention last week when President Obama enacted limited partner benefits for federal employees through administrative action.

“At the same time as he signed this presidential memorandum, he called on the Congress to send [my bill] to his desk because he can’t provide some of these very important benefits like health insurance and certain pension benefits without our passing legislation,” Baldwin said.

In a statement commending Obama for issuing the benefits, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi also spoke favorably about the Domestic Partnership Benefits & Obligations Act as one way to offer additional benefits to federal workers.

“Congresswoman Baldwin’s bill will continue to move forward in the House and we look forward to its progress in the Senate,” Pelosi said.

The domestic partner bill had significant momentum late last year when House and Senate committees reported it to the floor in each chamber. For a time, the legislation had stalled due to cost offset questions, but congressional leaders have said they’ve since received the necessary information.

Baldwin said staffers of the House and Senate leaders on the legislation met Monday to discuss the bill’s path, and lawmakers in both chambers are ready to move forward.

In a statement to the Blade, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), the sponsor of the bill in the Senate, said the bill would be ready for floor consideration “within weeks.” Lieberman noted this estimate was for when the bill would be ready to go to the floor, not when a vote would occur, and that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is “responsible for setting a timetable for consideration of legislation.”

Jim Manley, a Reid spokesperson, said a vote hasn’t yet been scheduled.

Baldwin said she couldn’t offer a more specific timetable for when she expects the legislation to advance.

“A lot happened over the course of this recess in terms of adding momentum for the legislation,” she said. “Because it happened over the recess, and I’ve been in Wisconsin, and not in Washington, and not able to have conversations with my leadership and with the other players in this, I can’t tell you if there’s a timetable yet.”

Allison Herwitt, legislative director for the Human Rights Campaign, also said she doesn’t know when Congress would bring the measure to the floor for consideration.

“Again, the question is how to move forward and what’s the timeframe for moving it forward, so we continue, as we have been for the past year, advocating to get this bill done,” she said.

ENDA faces obstacles

LGBT rights supporters have also strongly pushed for Congress to take up ENDA, which would bar employment discrimination against LGBT people in most public and private workplace settings.

The legislation remains pending in House and Senate committees. Capitol Hill observers have said ENDA supporters lack the 60 votes to overcome a filibuster in the Senate.

Still, supporters have expressed optimism about moving forward with the bill in the House. Baldwin said the LGBT Equality Caucus has been “counting the votes” and asking lawmakers how they would vote on the legislation or a harmful motion to recommit on the measure.

“It’s looking strong,” Baldwin said. “I’m hopeful that we can see committee consideration and floor passage very shortly.”

Rep. Barney Frank, who’s sponsoring the bill in the House, has told media outlets that a vote could take place this month or next.

But a more specific time for when Congress might take up ENDA is unclear. Aaron Albright, a spokesperson for the Education & Labor Committee, said he didn’t have an update or estimate on the schedule for committee action on the legislation.

Baldwin said her “crystal ball has been very unclear” for ENDA consideration and that she couldn’t offer a more definite timeframe.

“I was hoping it would be some months ago, but we continue to go through the vote counts, try to make sure they’re as solid as possible,” she said.

Herwitt was similarly unsure about when ENDA would come to the House floor, although she said HRC was pushing for it to come before lawmakers.

“Obviously, HRC wants a committee markup and a floor vote as soon as possible,” she said. “We would like to continue the momentum on moving LGBT equality forward and we would like a House vote as soon as possible.”

One danger for ENDA in the House is a legislative maneuver known as the motion to recommit, which could derail the legislation once it comes to the floor. A successful vote on the maneuver on the floor would enable opponents to send the motion back to committee.

Supporters have said opponents could target the bill’s gender identity provisions in the motion to recommit, although what’s targeted wouldn’t necessarily be such language.

Baldwin said “there are a lot of meddlesome things” that ENDA’s opponents can do through a motion to recommit when the bill comes to the floor.

“So we have been really trying to ask colleagues how they would vote in a wide variety of scenarios, so that we can feel confident that we have the votes to defeat such a motion to recommit,” she said.

Herwitt noted there’s “still some concern” and “vote counting” happening around the motion to recommit.

“We remain concerned to the extent that we want to continue working with leadership to shore up the votes that we need, so that when the bill comes to the floor, we have the ability to beat back a motion to recommit,” Herwitt said.

Herwitt said Pelosi has expressed a commitment to move ENDA to the floor, but wants to “make sure that we’re looking at angles in terms of what the motion to recommit would be, to protect the integrity of the bill.”

“If she brings the bill to the floor, she doesn’t want to lose,” Herwitt said. “So, she’s an expert vote-counter. She was a whip for many years, and so she knows what it takes to get a bill to the floor. From everything I’ve heard from her people, she wants to get it done, but she wants to get it done right.”

Another pro-LGBT bill pending before Congress is legislation that would enable same-sex bi-national couples to remain together in the U.S.

Current immigration law prohibits LGBT Americans from sponsoring their foreign partners for residency in the United States. Consequently, some LGBT Americans are faced with losing their partners after visas expire, while others expatriate with their partners to other countries with more favorable immigration laws.

Standalone legislation known as the Uniting American Families Act would rectify this situation. But supporters of the measure see its inclusion as part of upcoming immigration reform as the optimal path for passage.

Heading the legislative effort for comprehensive immigration reform in the Senate is Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). His office didn’t respond to a request to comment on the timing for immigration reform or whether UAFA would be included in the legislation.

Still, Schumer has spoken favorably about the inclusion of UAFA in comprehensive immigration reform, and advocates are expecting him to include the provision in the bill once it’s introduced.

According to the news website IrishCentral.com, Schumer said last week at a fundraising event for Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform that he thinks Congress will finish immigration reform by March 2011 — if not by the end of this year.

Steve Ralls, spokesperson for Immigration Equality, said supporters of the legislation have been assured Schumer wants UAFA as part of comprehensive immigration reform.

“I would even say, at this point, that the expectation is that UAFA will be part of comprehensive reform,” Ralls said. “I think Immigration Equality and other immigrant advocates fully expect it to be an inclusive bill when it’s introduced.”

Still, when Schumer will introduce the legislation in the Senate remains unclear. Since the Senate Judiciary Committee would handle both immigration reform and U.S. Supreme Court nominations, many Capitol Hill observers believe the Senate will first approve the nomination of Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court before taking up the immigration issue.

If Schumer includes UAFA as part of comprehensive immigration reform, the larger bill could find opposition from conservative groups that say they won’t support immigration reform with language benefitting same-sex couples.

Last week, the Liberty Counsel issued a statement signed by other Christian evangelical leaders saying comprehensive immigration reform that includes UAFA would not advance in Congress.

“Same-sex domestic partnerships will doom any effort for bipartisan support of immigration and will cause religious conservatives to withdraw their support,” said Mat Staver, founder and chair of the Liberty Counsel. “If same-sex domestic partnerships are included, the immigration bill will have no chance of passing.”

In response, Ralls said the “cornerstone” of the U.S. immigration system has been family unification and that LGBT families “should be part of that noble commitment.”

“Despite the protests of a few, many people, including many faith communities, continue to support an inclusive immigration reform bill,” Ralls said. “Methodists, Episcopalians, Jewish organizations, Unitarians and others are holding strong to a belief that a truly pro-family bill must include every family.”

Other bills on deck

Other pro-LGBT bills also could come up for consideration by the end of this year.

One bill, known as the Student Non-Discrimination Act, would bar schools from discriminating against LGBT students or ignoring harassing behavior against them. Potential penalties for discrimination could include a loss of federal funding or a legal cause of action for victims.

As standalone versions of the legislation remain pending in the House and Senate, supporters have said they envision passage of the bill as part of the upcoming Elementary & Secondary Education Act reauthorization.

Still, it’s unclear when Congress will take up this major education budget legislation. A House Democratic leadership aide noted the bill hadn’t yet been introduced, and “we can’t determine the timeline until that happens.”

Should Congress begin work on the education bill, Herwitt said HRC would push for the Student Non-Discrimination Act’s inclusion as part of the larger legislation.

“If the ESEA bill moves forward, you will see HRC and other groups like [the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network] working hard on the bill to make every effort to have it be part of the reauthorization bill,” Herwitt said.

Herwitt said she’s heard conflicting stories on the education reauthorization, though, and was unsure time remains in this year’s legislative calendar to tackle the legislation.

Baldwin said the Student Non-Discrimination Act’s “brightest prospect” is inclusion as part of this larger legislation, but she noted if the process stalls, congressional hearings would help educate members of Congress on the importance of the issue.

“One of the things I would really hope for is hearings on that legislation to really educate members and the public on what a significant issue this is,” she said. “I think many are unaware, and I think you could build some real momentum for passage of the legislation if it were highlighted in that way.”

Also of interest to LGBT rights supporters is passage of the fiscal years 2010 and 2011 foreign affairs reauthorization legislation.

Last year, the House approved a version of the State Department budget legislation that would call for greater U.S. action against LGBT abuses abroad. In the Senate, legislation with identical language has been reported out of committee, but hasn’t yet reached the floor.

The language urges the State Department to task more officers in the Human Rights Bureau to track violence overseas related to sexual orientation and laws criminalizing homosexuality.

Additionally, the provision calls on U.S. embassies to work to reform or repeal laws overseas criminalizing homosexuality and directs the State Department to strengthen its annual human rights report with regard to reporting on abuses against LGBT people.

But whether Congress will manage to pass the reauthorization bill for the State Department remains in question. The last time this legislation made its way to president’s desk was in 2002, and Manley said nothing has been scheduled for when the bill would come to the Senate floor.

Mark Bromley, chair of the Council for Global Equality, was skeptical that the full Senate would find time soon to take up the measure.

“I haven’t heard anything about them being able to find floor time for it,” he said. “It doesn’t seem like there’s any momentum in terms of getting it to the floor in the short term.”

Herwitt noted that passage of foreign affairs authorization has often been a difficult task for Congress.

“There have been many years when the State Department authorization bill never made it to the floor just because it becomes a heavy legislative lift — not because of our issues, but because of the bigger issues that are in the bill,” she said.

Baldwin said she was nonetheless optimistic about the bill’s chances this year because both chambers of Congress have moved forward on it.

“I would be hopeful — given that there’s interest now in both houses of Congress — that we can see it through,” she said.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

  • I’m pleased that the Domestic Partnership Benefits & Obligations Act is finally getting some congressional and media attention.

    Getting any information about these bills has been very frustrating. I hope that this legislation is not left to die from inaction once again. Similar bills have been introduced for the past 10 years or more, only to languish without even committee votes.

  • As a federal employee stationed overseas with my spouse, I can say that this bill will be very beneficial if it passes. As of now we rely on the German government to grant my spouse a visa so that we can stay together even though my straight co-workers just go to the local military installation and get their spouses visas and ID cards. You know, that whole DOMA thing is a real kick in the pants…

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