Big push building for DADT, ENDA votes


Nancy Pelosi

It is the end of April. Spring has sprung and all hell is breaking out in Washington, D.C.

There, Congress is racing through the final months of its 111th session, trying to fix everything from the nation’s financial system and the street policing of citizenship to climate change and next year’s budget. Around the corner awaits a soon-to-be-announced Supreme Court nominee and the contentious mid-term election campaigns.

Not wishing to be left behind in this biennial political morass, LGBT activists have stepped up their pleas to be heard. To push for repeal of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, a new activist group called GetEqual handcuffed six uniformed protesters to the fence in front of the White House this month. That was one day after the group staged a highly publicized interruption of President Obama’s speech in Los Angeles, beckoning him to make repeal happen.

On April 21, GetEqual interrupted a House committee hearing to demand a committee vote on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA). That same day, more than 200 LGBT organizations of every size and scope signed onto a one-sentence “Statement to members of the United States Congress: Pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act NOW.” Along with the expected national LGBT groups, the signers included the Massachusetts Lesbian & Gay Bar Association, the San Francisco LGBT Community Center, the Michigan AIDS Coalition, the Transgender Education Network of Texas, Atlanta Stonewall Democrats, Equality Illinois, Florida Together, the Freedom to Marry chapter of San Diego, and the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center.

The following day, a panel of national LGBT leaders, participating in a live broadcast of the Michelangelo Signorile Show on SiriusXM radio, gave both President Obama and Congress failing grades on LGBT issues. (Where a “D” earns one point and an “A” earns four, President Obama scored 1.8 and Congress 1.5.)

This week, the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN) launched a daily online open letter campaign aimed at illustrating the “personal stories on how this terrible law [DADT] has impacted them.” The effort is being magnified through the re-posting of letters by 16 different and well-established LGBT blogs.

Meanwhile, GetEqual was back on Capitol Hill, going door-to-door and politely distributing a toughly worded flyer to members of the Senate Armed Services Committee which states: “You’re Next! We demand ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ be repealed now or you will become a target for non-violent direct action.”

With this sense of urgency, they face a Congress wrestling with an overload of legislative priorities, an obstructionist minority party, and a Democratic party skittish over its grasp on the majority. Thus, the LGBT community can be forgiven for reading too much or too little into a statement coming out of the office of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Monday.

That statement, reported in a blogpost by reporter Chris Johnson in the D.C. gay newspaper D.C. Agenda (which is re-assuming the name Washington Blade this week), quoted Pelosi’s press secretary, Drew Hammill, as saying: “It is the Speaker’s intention that a vote will be taken this year on [‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’] in the House.”

In an interview with this reporter on Tuesday, Hammill made clear that he was not announcing any new commitment by the Speaker, only reiterating a “long-stated plan” for the bill.

And Diego Sanchez, a senior legislative advisor to Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), said Frank has been urging activists to stop “armchair speculating” about when a vote will occur “and focus on getting the votes.”

Just getting a vote on DADT or ENDA will be a victory of sorts, but unless there are enough votes to pass either bill favorably and to sustain a victory on the floor, those votes could be for naught.

And there’s another complication, noted one senior Democratic aide: The House is getting a little frustrated with the Senate’s inaction on numerous bills passed by the House—more than 300 of them this session.

Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, told the Signorile Show last week that his organization and others are focusing their lobby efforts in the senate. They are focused on six senators on the Senate Armed Services Committee: Jim Webb of Virginia, Bill Nelson of Florida, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Robert Byrd of West Virginia, Evan Bayh of Indiana, and Scott Brown of Massachusetts.

Brown is the lone Republican among the group and the man who famously hobbled the Democratic majority in the Senate with his winning of the late Senator Ted Kennedy’s seat in January. MassEquality field operations manager Ryan Brown said his group has coordinated members to call Brown’s office to inquire about his position on DADT and, so far, have verified only that he has not taken a position.

“We’re taking that as a good sign,” said Brown, who is not related to the senator. Ryan Brown said the senator’s office has also agreed to “one meeting” between the senator’s staff and LGBT activists about DADT. MassEquality is pushing for that meeting prior to the May 11, the date for HRC ‘s large lobby day effort on Capitol Hill to push for DADT repeal.

Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, told the Signorile Show that she is still “very optimistic” ENDA will get its vote in committee in the next two weeks, but that “we have to be marching in the streets.”

And things are looking a little tough for ENDA these days. The right-wing has stepped up its rhetoric considerably in recent days, sounding an alarm.

An editorial in the conservative Washington Times in D.C. on April 23 said: “First-graders should not be forced into the classrooms of teachers undergoing sex changes. Religious broadcasters and faith-based summer camps should not be forced to hire cross-dressers. Women should not be forced to share bathrooms with people with male body parts who say they want to be females. Yet those are some of the likely results if Congress passes” ENDA, said the editorial.

The Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call ran two articles on Monday reporting that support was slipping for ENDA because of the inclusion of gender identity in this year’s bill. Rep. Judy Biggert (R-Ill.), who voted for the “sexual orientation only” ENDA in 2007 said she’s now undecided and pointed to how the expansion of the law could affect schools as her concern. Ditto Rep. John Campbell (R-Calif.).

But the paper said at least some Republicans are staying onboard with their support, including Reps. Mary Bono Mack of California, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, and Mark Kirk of Illinois.

But is it reasonable to expect both houses of Congress to take up both DADT and ENDA this year?

“It’s definitely possible,” said David Smith, HRC vice president of programs and a long-time legislative activist on Capitol Hill. “But is it going to be tough? On this issue, in this environment—yes.”

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