Gay Civil Rights Bill, a Test for the GOP, Moves to Hill Forefront

Booker's entry into the Senate could provide an essential vote to advance the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. (Kena Betancur/Getty Images)

The Senate’s partisan balance will move a tick to the left Thursday, when Cory Booker takes his seat as the 55th member of the Democratic caucus. And the New Jersey newcomer looks increasingly likely to make a bit of history befitting his national profile only a few days later, by providing an essential vote to advance the most important civil rights bill of the decade.

Legislation that would prohibit workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity is on the cusp of securing a filibuster-crushing supermajority of 60 senators — close enough that proponents are ready to call the question.

Four Republicans have announced their support for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, along with 51 of the current Democrats. Another sure “yes” vote would come from Booker, who as mayor of Newark presided over the first same-sex marriage legally sanctioned by New Jersey, now the 14th state (plus the District of Columbia) where gay marriage is legal. “It’s about time,” he declared after the vows were exchanged a minute after midnight on Oct. 21.

That puts the vote count at 56. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democrat who has made the bill his top priority before retiring next year, is working with the leadership to arrange debate in early November — and he’s said he wouldn’t ask for floor time until he was confident of victory.

The targets for the final votes are relatively easy to identify. Eleven gay rights, civil rights and labor organizations have formed Americans for Workplace Opportunity, a coalition that’s spending $2.5 million this month to deploy 30 field organizers to stage 150 grass-roots events and lobby uncommitted senators in nine states.

One of the advocacy groups — the American Unity Fund, a creation of big-time Republican donor and hedge fund billionaire Paul Singer — has also hired former GOP Sen. Norm Coleman of Minnesota and former Rep. Tom. Reynolds of New York (who ran the National Republican Congressional Committee in 2005 and 2006) to lobby for ENDA.

The Republican targets are Rob Portman in Ohio, Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire, Dean Heller in Nevada, Patrick J. Toomey in Pennsylvania, Dan Coats in Indiana and Jeff Flake of Arizona, who voted in the House to pass a somewhat narrower version of ENDA six years ago.

Eight Republicans, all of them gone now, voted for similar legislation 17 years ago, the only time it was been put before the Senate, when it was defeated by a single vote.

The three Democratic senators not already on board are also getting lobbied, but only Florida’s Bill Nelson seems up for grabs. (The others are Mark Pryor of Arkansas, the party’s most endangered incumbent of 2014, and Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, whose cultural conservatism appears unbending.)

That the focus is on Republicans is a sign that LGBT advocates sense an opening to capitalize on efforts by the party establishment to grow their base in order to prevent a takeover by tea partyers and culture warriors, which could debilitate the GOP’s national prospects for years.

This year’s initial strategy for a bigger tent — backing an immigration overhaul that might boost the GOP’s share of the fast-growing Hispanic vote above its abysmal 27 percent in 2012 — now looks way more likely than not to remain stopped by the House’s most conservative bloc. A conscious effort to woo the steadily expanding LGBT vote, which was just 22 percent Republican last year, would be a next logical alternative; it also might help the party with younger voters and even libertarian independents. (One of the most prominent proponents of this approach is Ken Mehlman, a former top aide to a pair of conservative House Republicans from Texas who came out after chairing the Republican National Committee.)

Since the Supreme Court struck down a portion of the Defense of Marriage Act this year, that’s a topic almost exclusively for states to debate. But efforts to outlaw job bias have been a federal matter for six decades. And some congressional Republicans eye a new poll by the conservative firm Target Point as signaling it’s politically safe to join such an effort.

Four in five of the 2,000 registered voters surveyed assumed it's already illegal to fire or refuse to hire someone based on sexual identity. Told such discrimination is permissible, 68 percent expressed support for a federal ban on such bias, including 56 percent of Republicans. The pollsters said such a bill had majority support in every state and was backed by more than 60 percent of voters in Flake’s Arizona, Pryor’s Arkansas, Ayotte’s New Hampshire and Toomey’s Pennsylvania.

While those numbers buttress the notion that Senate passage is nearly in the bag next month, the story remains far different in the House, where the main arguments against the bill seem to have significant currency. The business lobby fears such an expansion of federal civil rights law would subject companies to a wave of frivolous lawsuits. Cultural conservatives, led by the Family Research Council, say such a law would infringe on freedom of religion, although the bill would explicitly permit churches and other religious groups to make personnel decisions based on their faith's tenets.

Of the bill’s 187 House sponsors, only three are from the GOP — so the majority of the majority is nowhere close to being found. Just nine additional Republicans remain from the 35 who voted for the ENDA bill that passed six years ago, though they haven’t committed themselves yet.

But among that group is the party’s 2012 candidate for vice president, and a potential contender for the top job next time. How Wisconsin Rep. Paul D. Ryan decides to play it — as advocate for equality and the big tent, or protector of social conservatism and corporate overhead — will send a signal about when his party will confront the arc of history.