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House Leaders Plot Gay Rights Agenda

After five months of virtual inaction on the gay rights agenda, House Democratic leaders on Wednesday met privately to chart out a strategy for advancing the constituency group’s priorities in the 111th Congress.

Headlining the meeting was Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who with her leadership team and the three openly gay Members of Congress — Reps. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) and Jared Polis (D-Colo.) — sought to map out a way forward on several key gay rights bills.

According to sources, the Members discussed workplace discrimination, health care benefits for same-sex partners of federal employees and a repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy that bars gays from openly serving in the military. The lawmakers also discussed how to help the Senate pass hate crimes legislation that has already cleared the House.

The high-level huddle comes less than a week after President Barack Obama threw a bone to the gay community by extending some federal benefits to same-sex couples. It also comes as Democratic candidates in left-leaning states have been embracing key aspects of the gay agenda, including supporting gay marriage.

Members exiting Wednesday’s meeting were mum on what was decided. But stakeholders were clearly optimistic about the prospect of advancing issues important to gays and lesbians, who have grown increasingly frustrated with Obama and Congress over a lack of action on their priorities.

“Democrats are in a very good place” to move on gay-related matters, said Frank. Major pluses include having a Democratic president who will sign these bills, a strong House vote last year on workplace discrimination legislation and a general shift in public opinion on gay issues, he said.

Frank this week introduced the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which provides workplace protections to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender employees. The bill passed the House last year — without the transgender provision — but failed to advance in the Senate. This time around, Frank said, the bill has the votes to pass the House with the transgender protections and with the support of five Republicans.

Asked what has shifted in the last year, Frank said Democrats picked up 21 more House seats and held a first-of-its-kind educational hearing on transgender issues last summer.

In addition, “the transgender community stopped yelling at me and [Pelosi] ... and started lobbying sensibly,” Frank said.

Despite the new push to move on gay-related issues, House Democrats are short on time to advance much beyond their top two priorities: health care reform and climate change legislation.

Leaders may try to package workplace discrimination and federal health benefits together into one bill, according to one source who attended the leadership meeting. The source said that Pelosi is fine with that plan, and others want to do it as well but “they are always worried about people taking votes, whether we have enough.”

Both Congress and the White House have taken steps in recent weeks to address issues important to the gay community.

Last week, Obama made his first big splash by signing an executive order extending benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees. But because those benefits did not include health care or retirement, some gay advocates said Obama didn’t go far enough.

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