As LGBT advocates ramp up efforts to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, some key U.S. senators this week said they’re still undecided on how they’ll vote on the bill.
Most notable among these holdouts are three Senate Democrats who are not co-sponsors of ENDA — Sens. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) — even in the aftermath of a 15-7 Senate committee vote weeks ago reporting out ENDA to the floor.
Manchin ignored questions from the Blade on how he’ll vote on the bill. His response to the final question: “It’s very nice to meet you.”
Pryor was similarly non-committal. Asked whether he was familiar with the legislation, the senator replied, “I am in concept, but I haven’t seen it or read it yet.”
Asked for a sense of how he’ll vote on ENDA, Pryor said he needed time to review the bill, adding, “I’ll just have to look at it.”
Nelson couldn’t be reached on Capitol Hill for a comment on how he’ll vote on ENDA. In a recent interview with the Tampa Bay Times, the Florida senator reportedly cited the transgender protections in the legislation as an issue of concern.
“There are so many ramifications,” Nelson was quoted as saying. “What is the responsibility of an employer to provide facilities, for example, for someone who dresses, thinks, acts, has had hormone treatments as a woman, but who has not had the operations? Is that person allowed to go into the women’s restroom? There are just a whole host of issues that I haven’t worked through.”
It’s not unusual for senators to refrain from saying how they’ll vote on legislation that isn’t imminently before them. Still, Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee Chair Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said that he’s expecting a floor vote this fall after August recess.
Tico Almeida, president of Freedom to Work, said the time has come for the holdout Democrats to co-sponsor ENDA because the more time that passes without their support makes them “look sillier and weaker the longer they drag this out.”
“The three holdout Senate Democrats are alienating themselves further from the Democratic Party and ignoring American values of hard work and success with every passing day that they stubbornly refuse to cosponsor the bipartisan ENDA,” Almeida said.
Although the lack of commitment from Pryor and Manchin may not be surprising because they’re among the Democrats who don’t support marriage equality, Nelson’s silence is striking because he supports same-sex marriage. In May 2010, the senator also voted for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee even before the Pentagon report on open service came out later that fall.
Almeida called on Obama and senior White House officials to take additional action to win ENDA support from Nelson as well as Pryor and Manchin.
“There’s a difference between providing strong leadership and issuing press statements, and LGBT Americans who fear getting fired from their jobs have been waiting for President Obama’s leadership for a long time,” Almeida said. “President Obama, Vice President Biden, Valerie Jarrett, Cecilia Munoz and especially the LGBT staff at the White House should start lobbying Congress to bring home these three holdout Democratic senators.”
Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, insisted that White House officials are reaching out to the Senate to ensure a successful floor vote.
“The president is pleased that the Senate HELP Committee, on a bipartisan basis, approved ENDA in July, and we look forward to the Senate’s consideration of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act,” Inouye said. “The White House will continue to reach out to lawmakers on this legislation which would enshrine into law strong, lasting and comprehensive protections against employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.”
LGBT groups launch campaigns to build ENDA support
Amid attention on these three Democratic senators, the Human Rights Campaign announced on Tuesday evening that it launched a $2 million campaign to work to pass ENDA called “Americans for Workplace Opportunity.”
The steering committee is being billed as a bipartisan group of organizations and consists of the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Federation of Teachers, the American Unity Fund, HRC, the Leadership Conference on Civil & Human Rights, the National Center for Transgender Equality, the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force and the Service Employees International Union.
Heading the campaign will be Matt McTighe, an LGBT activist who most recently was Marriage Project Director for Gill Action after leading the campaign to bring marriage equality to Maine last year.
In a statement, McTighe said the campaign plans to “mobilize the supermajority of diverse Americans” who believe LGBT people should be protected from workplace discrimination.
“With the tremendously successful mark-up of ENDA earlier this month, we have strong momentum as we build to reach 60 votes on the Senate floor,” McTighe said. “We will use all of our resources including grassroots action and strong corporate support to make it clear that the American people want action on this bill.”
In addition to states represented by Senate Democratic holdouts on ENDA — Arkansas, Florida and West Virginia — the campaign will be engaged in grassroots activities to encourage Republican votes for ENDA in Arizona, Idaho, Indiana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Ohio and Pennsylvania. According to HRC’s announcement, the eight steering committee members represent more than 5.6 million members and supporters.
It’s noteworthy that McTighe’s stated goal with the campaign is “to reach 60 votes” to pass ENDA on the Senate floor. Freedom to Work’s Almeida has been more bullish about ENDA and has projected between and 60 and 65 votes for the bill in the Senate.
At the same time, statewide LGBT advocacy groups in Florida and West Virginia say they’ve met with the respective senators from their states to encourage them to support ENDA.
Nadine Smith, executive director of Equality Florida, said she’s “optimistic” that Nelson will vote in favor of ENDA following a D.C. meeting that her organization — along with transgender activist and former Seal Team 6 member Kristin Beck — had in June with the Florida senator.
“Our team had a great conversation about the importance of protections for LGBT people, and were able to have an honest dialogue with the senator,” Smith said. “The meeting clearly had an impact and we are continuing to work with his staff to keep this on the front burner.”
Casey Willits, a spokesperson for Fairness West Virginia, said his organization has had conversations with Manchin and his staff on ENDA.
“When ENDA is voted on in the Senate, we trust that Sen. Manchin will act on the West Virginia values of hard work and fairness,” Willits said. “I’m sure when Sen. Manchin votes, he will have the story of Sam Hall, a gay West Virginian coal miner, on his mind. It’s our goal to have two senators in the ‘yes’ column for ENDA.”
Internal discussions within the Senate are also underway. A Senate aide familiar with ENDA, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the five original co-sposors of the bill — Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Tom Harkin — met recently to discuss a whip strategy for ENDA.
Additional conversations will happen in the next few weeks, the Senate aide said, in anticipation of a Senate floor vote before the end of the year.
The aide also said Merkley met with Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) prior to her “yes” vote on ENDA during the committee vote and also met recently with Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who’s considered a swing vote on ENDA, to talk about the bill.
Jeffrey Sadoksy, a Portman spokesperson, confirmed that Merkley met with the Republican senator and said the meeting took place last week, but wasn’t able to provide any information on whether Portman would vote for ENDA in the wake of the meeting.
Conversations over scheduling a vote apparently haven’t taken place yet within the Senate Democratic leadership. Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) said he’s unaware of those conversations happening at this time.
“I have not heard any, but there’s strong support for it,” Durbin said. “Sen. Merkley is, I believe, the lead sponsor — at least that was my understanding a few weeks ago. I hope we can schedule this quickly.”
Flake calls trans protections ‘problematic’
As groups push Senate Democrats to vote for ENDA, support from key Republicans is also necessary to surpass the 60-vote threshold needed to end a filibuster in the Senate. Most of the states targeted in the “Americans for Workplace Opportunity” campaign are represented in the Senate by Republicans.
One Republican who’s considered in play is Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.). Asked by the Blade about ENDA, Heller initially said he was unfamiliar with the bill.
When the Blade explained the legislation would prohibit job discrimination against LGBT people, Heller said, “I’m against discrimination.” Asked if that means he’ll vote for the bill, Heller repeated, “I’m against discrimination.”
Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) said on Capitol Hill in response to a question on ENDA, “I’m familiar with it, but I haven’t studied it,” and refused to comment on how she’d vote on the bill.
Another Senate Republican — Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) — is considered in play because he voted “yes” in 2007 on a gay-only version of ENDA as a U.S. House member. Asked by the Blade about ENDA, Flake recalled that he voted for the measure while serving in the lower chamber of Congress.
But Flake refused to offer a commitment on ENDA this time around, saying the language has changed since 2007 and that he needs to revisit the bill.
“I don’t know if it’s going to go back to the original or not, and so, until I see the language, I can’t tell you,’ Flake said.
When the Blade pointed out that a major difference between the 2007 version of ENDA and the current one is the addition of protections for transgender workers, Flake suggested that could be a sticking point for him.
“I know there were some issues there that came up for employers, so that was problematic,” Flake said. “I’ll have to look at the language and see.”
Flake’s counterpart from Arizona — Sen. John McCain (R) — asserted he was completely oblivious to ENDA. Asked by the Blade if he was familiar with the legislation, McCain replied, “I”m not familiar with it.”
When the Blade explained the bill provides non-discrimination protections for LGBT workers, McCain said, “I have not looked at it. I’m engaged in a whole lot of issues and I haven’t been engaged in that.”
Asked if he could say how he intends to vote on the bill, McCain replied, “No, of course not, because I haven’t looked at it.”
Jeff Cook-McCormac, senior adviser to the newly formed Republican-affiliated American Unity Fund, said his organization is building off work advancing LGBT initiatives throughout the states and in the last few weeks has held conversations with a “wide berth” of Republicans to persuade them to vote for ENDA.
“One of things we’ve learned over the years is not to count people out,” Cook-McCormac said. “As I’m sure you’ve seen with the vote on ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ repeal and many of the state legislatures both on marriage and non-discrimination, it’s really not fair to assume that any legislator is hostile to this legislation.”
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), among the Republicans to vote in favor of ENDA in committee, said he doesn’t know if his vote would bring along other GOP senators to support the bill as he explained his support for ENDA.
“I don’t believe in discrimination against anybody,” Hatch said. “I do draw the line on marriage, the definition of marriage. I just think that would be a tragic shame to change that. But I don’t like the way some people are treated.”
Even if the Senate approves ENDA, questions remain over the strategy to pass the legislation in the House, where Republican control makes advancing the bill difficult to say the least.
For his part, Hatch was pessimistic about the prospects of the House taking up ENDA even after a successful Senate vote.
“I doubt the House is going to do that” Hatch said. “I really doubt that, but I can’t speak for them either. You never know.”
Cook-McCormac acknowledged that much of the attention that LGBT advocates put on ENDA is devoted at this time to moving the legislation in the Senate.
“Getting the House to move is going to require initial Senate action,” Cook-McCormac said. “I think that the real critical focus for this coalition of business and labor, of the gay community and employers, is building on the overwhelming vote in the Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee to get to floor consideration, to get the majority that we need and then to begin to work in a careful and thoughtful way with House Republicans to think through ways that this important measure can be realized.”
UPDATE: This article has been updated to include the quote from Nelson on ENDA in the Tampa Bay Times piece.