ENDA’s Democratic Holdouts

by Justin Snow

Metro Weekly

Thursday August 1, 2013

As Congress prepares to leave town Friday for a month-long summer recess, advocates are undertaking a multimillion dollar lobbying campaign to secure Senate passage of one of the last major pieces of LGBT-rights legislation after their September return.

A coalition of organizations, called Americans for Workplace Opportunity, announced today that it plans to spend $2 million in the coming months targeting senators in 11 states in an attempt to build the 60 votes necessary for Senate passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.

"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," said the coalition's campaign manager, Matt McTighe, who successfully led the marriage-equality campaign in Maine last November. "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."

The steering committee of the coalition consists of the American Civil Liberties Union, American Federation of Teachers, American Unity Fund, Human Rights Campaign, Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, National Center for Transgender Equality, National Gay & Lesbian Task Force and the Service Employees International Union.

According to McTighe, the coalition is "about trying to capture a model that we've seen work for marriage in so many states."

ENDA, which would prohibit employers from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, saw its first major movement in more than a decade on July 10 when the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee voted 15-7 to report the bill to the full Senate. Now, with ENDA boasting 54 co-sponsors and growing Republican support after Sens. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Orrin Hatch (Utah) joined Mark Kirk (Ill.) in voting for the bill in committee, advocates are focusing on driving the bill over the finish line.

ENDA cannot pass the Senate without bipartisan support, and while a focus will remain on growing Republican support, three of the states the coalition will focus on are those of the only three Senate Democrats to not sign on as co-sponsors of the legislation - Sens. Bill Nelson (Fla.), Joe Manchin (W.V.) and Mark Pryor (Ark.).

"They are extremely important," McTighe said of the Democratic trio. "Having support of an increasing number of Democrats and Republicans is crucial for our efforts over the next three months if we're going to be successful. Our focus right now is to figure out the hesitations and concerns those senators have."

Nelson, who is the only senator of those three Democrats to support same-sex marriage, provided insight to his hesitations, and a likely preview of the debate that will take place on the Senate floor in the fall. While Nelson told Metro Weekly he is still considering the legislation, he pointed to the protections for transgender people as a point of concern.

"It's a long, involved conversation," Nelson said. "It involves the question of insurance with regard to transgender, it involves the question of bathrooms on transgender, and so forth."

Although not mentioned by Nelson, another provision expected to generate much debate is the scope of the religious exemption, which would allow religious organizations to make certain hiring and firing decisions based on religious beliefs, even if that means discriminating against LGBT people.

Nelson's announcement in April that he supports same-sex marriage - in which he said, "[T]o discriminate against one class and not another is wrong for me" - has given advocates hope that he can be swayed on ENDA, as have comments by Manchin made last spring. The only Democrat to vote to block the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," Manchin said in April that his vote was "wrong" and that today he would "vote the other way."

"I give Sen. Manchin credit for acknowledging that he was on the wrong side of history when he voted to continue the ugly and unconstitutional discrimination against our brave gay and lesbian soldiers who protect our nation," said Tico Almeida, president of Freedom to Work. "This upcoming vote on ENDA will give Sen. Manchin a chance at redemption, and I hope he takes it. His continued stalling on ENDA is just plain silly."

Americans for Workplace Opportunity will be engaged in a grassroots campaign during the summer recess with goals that include having potential Senate supporters hear from as many of their constituents as possible.

"We want to make sure these legislators are hearing about the overwhelming support for ENDA not just in the from polling, but from their constituents."

This strategy has paid off before, as seen during July's committee vote. HRC engaged in a grassroots lobbying effort that delivered a combined number of constituent contacts (consisting of postcards, emails and phone calls) of 12,000 to the offices of Murkowski, Hatch and Richard Burr (R-N.C.). While Burr voted no on ENDA, Murkowski and Hatch voted in favor. Speaking to reporters after the committee vote, Murkowski said the outpouring of support for ENDA from her constituents helped influence her vote.

"When I was home over the break, I think it was 1,174 postcards were delivered to my office from Alaskans from around the state in support of ENDA," Murkowski said. "If you listen to your folks back home, this is important to them."

"No discrimination against anyone at any time - it's pretty basic," she added.

HRC President Chad Griffin recently told Metro Weekly that ENDA "should be the easiest no-brainer of all for members of both parties."

"And I do think for Democrats or Republicans who oppose something that is supported by 80 percent of the American public, something that is the most basic and fundamental principal of fairness, I think there will be prices to pay for Democrats and Republicans who aren't on the right side of this issue," Griffin said.

Meanwhile on Capitol Hill, the original Senate sponsors of ENDA -Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) - have continued to meet with those senators who have no yet signaled their support for ENDA. A spokesman for Merkley said the senator has been encouraged by his conversations.

According to Harkin, a floor vote will likely come in October following the special election in New Jersey to fill the Senate seat vacated after the death of Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg, but some of the hardest work for ENDA will remain in the months ahead.

"We're working on it," Harkin told Metro Weekly. "We're not there yet, but we're getting there."

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