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.
The Democratic aide said a push is necessary to keep progressive and gay voters engaged leading up to the 2012 elections. Some have pushed for Obama to finally endorse gay marriage as part of his campaign platform, and because that appears unlikely, the aide said ENDA could have provided a nice boost.
“This would have given the community something to latch on to in the meantime,” the aide said, adding that an executive order could have had the added effect of sending a strong signal in ongoing DOMA court cases.
Still, advocates note that they are not about to abandon Obama in the presidential campaign, and they universally agree that re-electing the president and growing the number of gay-rights supporters in Congress remains a top goal. But their politicking will not be limited to the November elections.
“You bet we will not stop pushing for protections for LGBT people, including an executive order,” said Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
And Rep. Tammy Baldwin, the Wisconsin Democrat who is running for the Senate and would be the first openly gay Member of that chamber, agreed in a statement that “President Obama has advanced protections for the LGBT community significantly, but there’s no substitute for having a bill for the President to sign.”
“We have to focus on the importance of passing an inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) in Congress,” she said.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.