House Leaders Plot Gay Rights Agenda

Posted June 24, 2009 at 6:43pm

After five months of virtual inaction on the gay rights agenda, House Democratic leaders on Wednesday met privately to chart out a strategy for advancing the constituency group’s priorities in the 111th Congress.

Headlining the meeting was Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who with her leadership team and the three openly gay Members of Congress — Reps. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) and Jared Polis (D-Colo.) — sought to map out a way forward on several key gay rights bills.

According to sources, the Members discussed workplace discrimination, health care benefits for same-sex partners of federal employees and a repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell— policy that bars gays from openly serving in the military. The lawmakers also discussed how to help the Senate pass hate crimes legislation that has already cleared the House.

The high-level huddle comes less than a week after President Barack Obama threw a bone to the gay community by extending some federal benefits to same-sex couples. It also comes as Democratic candidates in left-leaning states have been embracing key aspects of the gay agenda, including supporting gay marriage.

Members exiting Wednesday’s meeting were mum on what was decided. But stakeholders were clearly optimistic about the prospect of advancing issues important to gays and lesbians, who have grown increasingly frustrated with Obama and Congress over a lack of action on their priorities.

“Democrats are in a very good place— to move on gay-related matters, said Frank. Major pluses include having a Democratic president who will sign these bills, a strong House vote last year on workplace discrimination legislation and a general shift in public opinion on gay issues, he said.

Frank this week introduced the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which provides workplace protections to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender employees. The bill passed the House last year — without the transgender provision — but failed to advance in the Senate. This time around, Frank said, the bill has the votes to pass the House with the transgender protections and with the support of five Republicans.

Asked what has shifted in the last year, Frank said Democrats picked up 21 more House seats and held a first-of-its-kind educational hearing on transgender issues last summer.

In addition, “the transgender community stopped yelling at me and [Pelosi] … and started lobbying sensibly,— Frank said.

Despite the new push to move on gay-related issues, House Democrats are short on time to advance much beyond their top two priorities: health care reform and climate change legislation.

Leaders may try to package workplace discrimination and federal health benefits together into one bill, according to one source who attended the leadership meeting. The source said that Pelosi is fine with that plan, and others want to do it as well but “they are always worried about people taking votes, whether we have enough.—

Both Congress and the White House have taken steps in recent weeks to address issues important to the gay community.

Last week, Obama made his first big splash by signing an executive order extending benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees. But because those benefits did not include health care or retirement, some gay advocates said Obama didn’t go far enough.

In addition to the Speaker’s under-the-Dome meeting, lawmakers have been stepping up efforts to advance bills affecting the gay community. In addition to Frank’s ENDA, Baldwin introduced legislation Wednesday to address health needs specific to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.

Other Democratic lawmakers have reached out to Obama to act first on certain fronts. On Monday, 77 House Members — including one Republican — sent a letter to the president urging him to use his authority to prevent military officials from enforcing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.—

Polis said he planned to engage Armed Services Chairman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), the original sponsor of the 1993 policy, on the issue during Wednesday’s debate on the defense authorization bill.

And Pelosi, who represents a strong gay constituency in her San Francisco district, signaled that she supports repeal sooner rather than later, saying: “I’ve never been for Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ so I think it’s long overdue.—

The lawmakers’ letter, which calls on Obama to prevent more openly gay soldiers from being discharged and for Congress to repeal the policy, lays out “a middle ground where Obama can do something now, where he can say to the generals, Stop pursuing these people and leave them alone,’— said the author, Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.).

Even signatures on the letter reflect how attitudes have changed since the policy was enacted in 1993. Two lawmakers who signed on to the letter urging a repeal — Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) — voted for the policy under President Bill Clinton.

Hastings said he hasn’t heard back from the White House yet, but predicted he will soon. He also clarified his own sexuality: “Now, I’m not gay. I’ve chased more women than the law allows.—

More lawmakers are aligning themselves with gay rights because of a shift in public attitudes, Hastings said. And in the halls of Congress, Polis and Baldwin “have added a new tone to the committees that they work on. They have brought their partners to Democratic Caucus meetings and here to meet us. That part of it is softening.—

Public support for gay rights is also becoming politically popular for a few Senate Democrats who might face primary opposition in 2010.

The most vulnerable Senate Democrat up for re-election next year, Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), wrote a column in a local newspaper last weekend announcing that he had changed his position on gay marriage. In the Meriden Record-Journal, Dodd wrote, “public officials aren’t supposed to change their minds,— but that he now agrees with the state courts that gay marriage should be legalized.

But one Democratic consultant suggested that Dodd’s change of heart was politically motivated given his re-election campaign. Dodd already has one primary challenger but could see more as he continues to aggressively campaign to keep his seat.

“You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that if you’re in the political fight of your life, the LGBT community is an excellent community to appeal to the Democratic base of voters,— the consultant said.

Similarly, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who was appointed to the Senate earlier this year to replace now-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, announced last week on a liberal news Web site that she was committed to repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.—

Gillibrand could face a primary with more liberal Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D), who represents New York City.

But it might be a good move politically for Gillibrand: Not only is the state’s Senate expected to pass legislation that would legalize same-sex marriage, but recent public polling shows gay marriage to be popular in New York. In a recent Quinnipiac University poll of 2,477 registered voters in the state, 51 percent to 41 percent said they support same-sex marriage — the first time a majority has supported it in the poll.

But Gillibrand isn’t the only Democrat in the political hot seat picking up the issue recently. Illinois Sen. Roland Burris spoke recently at Chicago’s Gay Pride Week, where he also called for a repeal of the military policy.

If he decides to run for a full term next year, Burris — appointed by disgraced former Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) — will face one or more primary challengers and is expected to have a tough if not impossible fight to keep his seat.

Democrats also see the power of the gay community’s purse.

On Thursday, the Democratic National Committee’s Gay and Lesbian Leadership Council is hosting a fundraising event with Vice President Joseph Biden. Frank, Baldwin and Polis are among those headlining the 10th annual event; the cost to attend ranges from $1,000 to $30,400 per person.

Democratic consultant Mark Nevins said the gay community is a “compelling voting bloc— for Democrats, particularly because of their strong organization and financial backing.

“They are organized. They work hard. They vote and they have money,— Nevins said. “They are a powerful financial institution.—