Congressional Democrats, disappointed in President Barack Obama’s strategy to pursue legislation and not to use his executive power to ban discrimination against gays and lesbians, say the party’s leader is ignoring a key problem: Republicans control the House.
“Without a Congress that’s willing to pass [the Employment Non-Discrimination Act], I wish the president was a little more aggressive to pursue nondiscrimination,” openly gay Rep. Jared Polis said in a brief interview Monday.
The Colorado Democrat, a leader in the LGBT Equality Caucus, said Obama made a strategic misstep last week when he announced he wanted Congress to move on enacting a nondiscrimination policy for all workers rather than issue an executive order that could protect employees working for federal contractors. With a Republican-led House and a Congress now focused on the elections, the chances of passing a gay-rights-oriented bill this year are dim at best. And the prospects could remain equally grim if Democrats fail to win back control of the House in November.
“I was disappointed they haven’t reached out yet,” Polis said, noting that he had not spoken with anyone in the administration since last week’s announcement. “They certainly have a lot of explaining to do in the LGBT community.”
A Democratic leadership aide was more direct and said that given the inroads made on other gay rights priorities, “I don’t understand the strategy behind this one.”
Indeed, the administration did take steps in previous debates to make gains for the gay rights community while also pursuing a legislative strategy. In the lead-up to the 2010 repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” ban on openly gay service members, the Defense Department raised the level of commander authorized to initiate a discharge investigation and elevated the threshold for third-party allegations. Similarly, in 2011, Obama deemed a provision of the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional and instructed the Justice Department not to defend the federal law against court cases that question its constitutionality. The 1996 DOMA law defines marriage as between one man and one woman and says states do not have to recognize gay marriages authorized by other states.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said at a press briefing last week that the DOMA and DADT debates were “instructive” to the administration in its pursuit of ENDA.
“We support, as I just said, legislation that has been introduced — the Employment Non-Discrimination Act — and we will continue to work with Congressional supporters to build — sponsors, rather, to build support for it,” Carney said.
Carney also insisted that ENDA was not a casualty of the election year, telling reporters it was “absolutely not” a political calculation.
“The president is committed to securing equal rights for LGBT Americans and that is why he has long supported ENDA,” he said.
Polis, who holds a leadership position in the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, took the opposite view and said the political realities make it so that Obama “should use his authority” to give party loyalists a boost. He also vowed to press for a dual track despite the administration’s announcement.
“I certainly plan to continue to push for an executive order, but we also need to push for legislation even if there isn’t an executive order,” the lawmaker said.
Terri Henderson, 6, center, whose mother is El Salvador, attends a rally with members of Congress at Union Station's Columbus Circle to announce the Restore Opportunity, Strengthen, and Improve the Economy (ROSIE) Act on July 29, 2014. The legislation provides incentives for government contractors to pay a living wage and other benefits that would help low-income workers.