Amid increasing hostilities, health passes, ENDA is poised
The health care reform legislation President Obama signed into law this morning does not include any of the pro-gay provisions sought by the LGBT community. The provisions were not part of a companion bill also passed by the House Sunday night and one that the Senate begins debating today. That companion bill includes “fixes” to the approved legislation. But there is a silver lining: Congress can soon turn to the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA).
A bitterly divided U.S. House of Representatives approved the Senate health care reform bill late Sunday night, a bill that promises to provide long-sought health care to millions of Americans who have not been able to afford it and protect the coverage of those who already have it.
While Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) said Monday he is “disappointed in some aspects” of the law, “it’s a very good step forward and, in a couple of years, it’s going to be popular.”
Frank said passage of the health care reform package by the House now clears the way for that chamber to take up ENDA. He said the vote could come as early as this week but would more likely come right after the spring recess, March 29-April 9.
The Sunday night vote also marked an enormous political victory for President Obama and the Democratic leadership in Congress, but it was a victory marred by increasingly hostile partisan rancor.
Hostilities escalated so dramatically in the hours leading up to Sunday’s dramatic vote that anti-health care reform protesters twice surrounded Democratic leader Barney Frank (D-Mass.), one of only three openly gay representatives in Congress, calling him “faggot.” Frank said he did not feel physically endangered by the incidents, which took place as he walked between various offices on Capitol Hill. But he said the “bullying” had reached a point where Capitol Police offered him security protection. He declined.
Jim Ready, Frank’s partner for the past four years, was with him during the confrontations and said they were both “scary” and “seemed like junior high stuff.”
“What scares me is that some kids heard it and it could make them afraid to be proud of who they are,” said Ready.
African American legislators who supported the president’s health care reform reported being spat at and being assaulted with racist pejoratives. One male representative whose wife is pregnant had someone shout at him, “I’m going to burn your house down with your pregnant wife in it.” On the floor of the House Sunday night, one Republican member yelled out, “Baby killer” as Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.). Stupak had, in fact, been fighting for months to ensure that nothing in the health care reform bill provided federal funds for abortions. On Sunday afternoon, he and several other Democrats made a critical decision to support reform based on an assurance from President Obama that he would issue an executive order emphasizing that the health care reform bill would not change the current federal law against federal funding of abortions.
Meanwhile, Rep. Frank, chairman of the House Finance Committee, charged into his own partisan spar with House Minority Leader John Boehner over a remark Boehner made in a speech to bankers, telling them not to be thwarted by “little punk staffers” in Congress. Frank wrote Boehner a letter urging him to apologize for taking such a “cheap shot.” Frank also told reporters Sunday that Republicans were “encouraging the disruption” of the proceedings during the debate over health care reform, according to Politico.com.
Boehner has increasingly dropped the decorum normally expected of a member of Congress, particularly a leader. During Sunday’s debate on the floor, debate which was nationally televised by a number of networks, Boehner repeatedly said “Hell no!” And his Republican colleagues cheered wildly.
But the vote said “Yes” to H.R. 3590, to the tune of 219 to 212.
Republicans then tried to block a vote on a separate “reconciliation” bill of House-sought changes to the Senate bill, but failed on a vote of 199 to 232. Finally, the House passed the reconciliation bill 220 to 211. That bill now goes to the Senate that is scheduled to begin debate on Tuesday.
President Obama made a statement to reporters after the final vote, thanking those who supported the legislation “out of a firm conviction that change in this country comes not from the top down, but from the bottom up.”
Even though the bill President Obama will soon sign into law has no gay-specific provisions, it does provide for all Americans in a number of ways. Insurance companies will no longer be able to drop a person who develops a particular disease, such as HIV or breast cancer. Insurance companies will no longer be able to set a cap on how much coverage they will provide over a lifetime. People with low to moderate income who do not have employer-provided health coverage will –with financial aid from the federal government, as needed—be required to buy coverage, starting in 2014. Certain preventive care screenings will be covered without co-pays.
The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force noted that the legislation includes $8.5 billion for community health centers. But it expressed “deep disappointment in the absence of LGBT-specific provisions that were in the original House bill.” There were four such provisions: One to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity; one to end a tax for gay employees only on health coverage they could provide through their employers to their partners/spouses; one to provide early treatment of HIV infection; and one to collect data about disparities in health care for LGBT people.
“The Task Force is also disappointed in the inclusion of funding for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs; the continuation of a ban on legal immigrants’ Medicaid eligibility and on undocumented residents’ access to health insurance; the ongoing restrictions and attacks on funding for women’s reproductive rights services; and the lack of a public option,” said a Task Force press release.
But while the legislation is “far from perfect,” said Task Force Executive Director Rea Carey, “this legislation marks a historic step toward ensuring access to health care for roughly 32 million people who are currently uninsured, and toward ending some of the health insurance industry’s most egregious abuses.”
The Human Rights Campaign said on its website that the organization has “not given up,” and, echoing the words of Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.), said it will “keep looking for ways to move these important provisions forward.”
Rep. Frank said in a phone interview Monday that he does not believe the increased rancor between Democrats and Republicans will jeopardize passage of ENDA. He noted he recently picked up another Republican co-sponsor for the bill because the representative had received a visit from a couple of gay constituents.
Frank said he told Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), who chairs the House Education and Labor Committee, “Now, it’s our turn.” But Frank said he thinks the ENDA vote “may not come this week,” as he originally predicted. Congress takes a recess March 29 through April 9, and Frank said he expects a vote as soon as they come back from that recess.