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Democrats’ Path Ahead Puts Hoyer in Dilemma

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) stands at a crossroads in the Democratic agenda.

Down one path lie easy-does-it items designed to gather bipartisan support and show the party is committed to job growth in the hopes of staving off a midterm election bloodbath. Down the other lie controversial measures that Democrats could use their cresting majority to muscle through while potentially endangering even more seats.

According to many conservative Democrats nervously eyeing re-election this fall, the road forks at a bill banning employers from discriminating against gay and transgender people.

The decision about which path to take, of course, is not Hoyer’s alone. The Maryland Democrat serves as No. 2 to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who keeps an especially strong grip on setting the Caucus’ course.

But as the moderates’ most powerful champion, Hoyer is frequently the first to give voice to their angst in the councils of leadership and, publicly, nudge a liberal-dominated Caucus back toward the center. In the case of the employment discrimination ban, however, Hoyer is caught between his dedication to shoring up the most politically imperiled lawmakers — many of whom hail from rural, socially conservative districts and view a liberal social agenda as anathema — and a quiet, personal commitment to a civil rights cause he sees as a first principle.

“I’m a very strong proponent of non-discrimination,” Hoyer, in a recent interview, said of his backing for the bill — officially the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. Noting his work in the civil rights movement in college and his sponsorship of the landmark 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act, the Majority Leader said, “I feel very strongly that we ought to treat every American based upon their character and their willingness to work, and their willingness to obey the laws of our country — not some arbitrary distinction on race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.”

For now, a team of proponents — led by Financial Services Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who is openly gay, and Education and Labor Chairman George Miller (D-Calif.), whose panel will take up the measure — is counting votes full steam ahead for a more ambitious version of ENDA than the one that passed in 2007. The 2007 bill, which did not include coverage for transgender people, passed by a comfortable margin, picking up 35 Republican votes.

The measure’s backers, Hoyer included, point to that vote as evidence that it is not controversial. But to some Blue Dog Democrats, the padded majority the narrower version mustered two years ago belies a deep unease about it in their ranks. And their hang-ups are exacerbated by the inclusion of protections for transgender people — which is already prompting Republican supporters to threaten bolting — and a historically sour political climate.

“I’ll just say that I think it’s time to focus on jobs,” said Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.), who voted “no” on ENDA in 2007. While Lipinski, who isn’t a Blue Dog, said he would reconsider his vote on the earlier version of the bill, “all we should be focusing on right now is jobs, doing appropriations bills. ... It’s up to the leadership to reach a conclusion about what they want to do and what they think is the best thing to do.”

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