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Liberal Agenda Back on Deck

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 Obama’s failure to act on “Don’t Ask, Don’t 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 Obama’s 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 Obama’s 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 “Don’t Ask, Don’t 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 haven’t 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 “Don’t Ask, Don’t 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 “Don’t Ask, Don’t 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.

Even today, the White House is quietly hosting a reception for high-profile LGBT families, volunteers and activists to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Stonewall, the site of gay riots in 1969.

But while the gay community has been the focus of legislation and receptions, Latinos have gotten something bigger: a Latina nominee to the Supreme Court and a renewed pledge by Obama to act on comprehensive immigration reform in his first year in office.

Obama appeased immigration stakeholders last week when, during a meeting with key lawmakers, he pushed for wrapping up immigration reform this year. The president’s recommitment to the issue has rejuvenated Latino lawmakers who were starting to worry that their No. 1 issue would be edged out of the agenda.

“The president is sending a strong message that look, we have to lower the rhetoric. This is an emotional issue, but this is something that has to be done,” Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chairwoman Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.) said.

Velázquez said she will still press Obama “every day” to act on immigration reform. But for now, given his vow to move on the issue in 2009, Velázquez said her “laser focus is on the Senate” since Pelosi will wait for the Senate to act first.

The optimism felt in the meeting with Obama seemed to erase initial concerns felt by immigration stakeholders. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) left feeling “very optimistic”; Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) described the meeting as “a real shot in the arm.” Separately, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has put immigration reform on the Senate’s must-do list this year.

Obama’s message on immigration also seemed to translate into a renewed sense of bipartisanship. Velázquez praised past work on the issue by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), whom she said she recently met with in her office to discuss strategy.

“I think these two Senators have done so much work and they have been victims of their involvement on an issue where they understand the human aspect,” Velázquez said.

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