After avoiding contentious social issues for six months, House Democrats are throwing bones to advocates for gay rights and immigrants key liberal constituencies in an effort to keep a lid on simmering tensions until they finish with larger priorities: health care and energy.
President Barack Obama and Democratic leaders adopted a strategy early in his presidency to avoid hot-button cultural and social issues, fearing that doing so would bog down their agenda as it did to then-President Bill Clinton in 1993 when fights over gays in the military and gun rights divided the party and gave Republicans fuel for their 1994 revolution.
But patience has quickly worn thin in the gay and immigrant communities.
Gay rights advocates have stepped up protests of Obamas failure to act on Dont Ask, Dont Tell as hundreds of gay soldiers continue to get fired on his watch. The 1993 policy, which Obama opposes, bars openly gay people from serving in the military.
The president also infuriated gay advocacy groups when, two weeks ago, his administration filed a court brief defending the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act, which Obama has pledged to repeal.
I cannot overstate the pain that we feel as human beings and as families when we read an argument, presented in federal court, implying that our own marriages have no more constitutional standing than incestuous ones, Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese wrote in a letter to Obama.
Even Obamas effort to appease the gay community by signing an executive order extending benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees appeared to fall flat. Because those benefits did not include health care or retirement, advocates grumbled that Obamas move was little consolation.
But House Democratic leaders are starting to show signs that they are now ready to push key aspects of the gay rights agenda.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and her leadership team met privately last week with Reps. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) and Jared Polis (D-Colo.) the three openly gay Members of Congress to chart a strategy for advancing gay rights issues this Congress.
Sources in the meeting said Members discussed workplace discrimination, health care benefits for same-sex partners of federal employees, and a repeal of Dont Ask, Dont Tell. Lawmakers also discussed how to help the Senate pass hate crimes legislation that has already cleared the House and the possibility of rolling workplace discrimination and federal health benefits into one bill.
Other Democrats have stepped up their efforts to show they havent forgotten about the gay community.
During a colloquy last week with Polis, House Armed Services Chairman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), the original sponsor of the Dont Ask, Dont Tell policy, agreed to hold hearings to revisit the issue.
Seventy-six lawmakers signed on to a letter to Obama urging him to use his authority to halt Dont Ask, Dont Tell. Frank and Baldwin filed bills relating to workplace protections and health care services for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.
The Obama administration has made moves as well. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan teamed up with Frank to host the first event in 12 years recognizing LGBT employees at HUD. Obama also signed a proclamation declaring June 2009 as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride Month.
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