June 13, 2013 at 10:01 am EST | by Chris Johnson
Senate panel approves LGBT-inclusive education bill
HELP, Health, Education, Labor and Pension, Tom Harkin, United States Senate, Washington Blade, gay news

The Senate HELP Committee under Sen. Tom Harkin approved an LGBT-inclusive education reform bill (Washington Blade photo by Damien Salas)

A Senate committee approved on Wednesday by party-line vote an education reform bill that includes language aimed to protect LGBT students against bullying and harassment.

The Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee reported out legislation to reauthorize the Elementary & Secondary Education Act by a vote of 12-10 after a two-day period of considering amendments.

The 1,150-page education bill, known as the Strengthening America’s Schools Act, incorporates two standalone bills aimed to protect LGBT students: the Student Non-Discrimination Act, or SNDA, and the Safe Schools Improvement Act, or SSIA.

Eliza Byard, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, said she’s “thrilled” the education reform bill is moving forward and even more encouraged that the legislation includes SNDA and SSIA.

“These provisions serve as a model for federal legislation that would create safe, supportive and healthy school environments for all students, including those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender,” Byard said.

Modeled after Title IX of the Education Amendments, the SNDA-like provision in the bill establishes LGBT students as a protected class and prohibits schools from discriminating against any student based on actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. The discrimination includes allowing bullying against them.

The bill also contains provisions similar to SSIA that advocates for a positive school climate and requires reporting on incidents of bullying, including on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

It’s up to Democratic leadership to determine when the bill will come up for a floor vote. The office of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) didn’t immediately respond to a request to comment on the timing for a vote.

Following the hearing, Harkin told the Washington Blade he expects that a floor vote on the legislation will happen “probably after Labor Day.” He declined to comment on the inclusion of SSIA and SNDA as part of the larger legislation.

Lesbian Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), a member of the committee, told the Blade she’s pleased the panel reported out legislation that includes the LGBT provisions without any qualms from senators on the committee.

“I think it’s terrific that those measures are in the base bill and that during the course of the markup, certainly there were no efforts to remove that language, or question that language,” Baldwin said. “I think that’s a great step forward.”

On Tuesday, the committee rejected a substitute bill for education reform proposed by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), the top Republican on the panel. That measure lacked both SNDA and SSIA.

Among the “no” votes to the LGBT-inclusive bill was Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), who voted against the bill by proxy. His opposition to the larger bill is noteworthy because he’s an original co-sponsor of SSIA. Kirk’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request to comment on his “no” vote.

The party-line vote in committee raises questions about whether the measure will find bipartisan support to meet the 60-vote threshold to overcome a filibuster on the Senate floor. It also raises concerns about whether a similar measure could pass in the Republican-controlled House.

Nonetheless, Baldwin said she sees a path forward for the legislation on the Senate floor and the possibility of Republican support.

“I listened carefully to Sen. Alexander’s remarks at the end of this,” Baldwin said. “And he sees a path forward to reauthorizing the Elementary & Secondary Education Act, and getting it to the president’s desk. That’s less likely to happen if there’s a filibuster. So if he continues in the vein that he has, understanding that there’s differences, but that we can resolve those in a conference committee after the Senate has acted, that would be great. But, you know, it’s far from assured.”

The same committee has also jurisdiction over the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which is expected to face a panel vote this summer.

But Baldwin says she doesn’t anticipate the proceedings on the LGBT-inclusive education bill to predict what will happen with ENDA.

“Not necessarily — very different bills,” Baldwin said.

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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