Backers Say Gay Rights Bills Will Win in House

Moderates Are Uneasy, but Nondiscrimination Bill and DADT Repeal May Reach House Floor This Month

Posted May 7, 2010 at 5:25pm

Backers of gay rights bills in the House are pressing ahead despite grumbling from moderate Democrats, an uncertain future in the Senate and some friendly fire from the Obama administration.

A repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law banning openly gay people from serving in the military and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act could be on the floor this month, according to senior Democratic aides and lawmakers.

The gay rights bills are the only controversial social items on a fairly milquetoast House agenda, with a “campaign mode” Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) having already punted immigration reform to the Senate.

However, it’s unclear whether the votes are still there to repeal DADT after Defense Secretary Robert Gates wrote to Congress on April 30 urging a delay until after a departmental review, according to a leadership aide.

The bill’s chief sponsors remain confident that they can attach a repeal to the defense authorization bill when it comes to the floor as soon as this month.

“We have the votes right now,” said Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.), the Iraq War veteran leading the charge for repeal. Murphy said he has 192 co-sponsors plus a couple dozen private commitments to back repeal.

“The game plan is we move forward every single day,” he said. “Every single day that we throw out these heroes who are willing to take a bullet for our country makes our national security suffer and wastes taxpayer dollars.”

Murphy said Gates’ letter asking for more time doesn’t make sense, in part because his bill would already give the department six months from enactment of the law to implement repeal. Given that the defense authorization bill isn’t likely to become law before October, Murphy said that would give the department until March or April.

“There’s plenty of time to figure out the implementation of this,” he said.

Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), one of three openly gay House Members, puts the blame squarely on the president.

“I think the president made a big mistake allowing that letter to be sent,” Frank said, adding that he believes repeal can still pass, although “it will give some Members an excuse not to vote for it.”

But Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), another openly gay lawmaker, called the Gates letter “a distraction” that should not affect the vote count.

“It’s just wrong, and we need to stand up when things are wrong,” she said.

Pelosi, for her part, is still strongly pushing for repeal this year and called on the administration to immediately implement a moratorium on dismissing gay soldiers until the review is finished. The House Democratic leadership is also waiting to see whether Obama issues more guidance on what he wants to see happen legislatively instead of simply deferring to Gates’ timeline.

Shin Inouye, a White House spokesman, said the president’s commitment to repeal is “unequivocal” but appeared to back a delay.

“This is not a question of if, but how,” he said in an e-mail. “That’s why we’ve said that the implementation of any Congressional repeal will be delayed until the DOD study of how best to implement that repeal is completed. The president is committed to getting this done both soon and right.”

Meanwhile, the whip count on ENDA, which Obama also backs, is entering its fifth week. The effort has most recently focused on rechecking support among Members thought to be more comfortable with the legislation than politically imperiled moderates who have raised most of the concerns, one source familiar with the effort said. That, the source said, bodes well for its progress. But many Members remain officially undecided and have quietly voiced frustrations about the prospect of taking a tough vote that they see as a distraction from an agenda focused on job creation.

“It seems to run contrary to what the Speaker said a few months back about focusing on jobs and moving away from these controversial items,” one senior Democratic aide said. “Anything that’s not specifically tied to keeping the economy going raises red flags for folks.”

But Frank said that he is optimistic about the vote count and that transgender protections will remain in the bill.

“There’s no chance of doing it without it,” he said of the transgender protections.

Frank said he’s told wavering Democrats that “the principle is the same. It’s discrimination.”

He said concessions were made in the drafting of the language to address moderates’ concerns. For instance, Frank said, transgender people with “one set of genitals” would not be able to go to a bathroom for people with another set of genitals.

And, Frank said, they also would have to have a “consistent gender presentation” in order to be able to sue for discrimination.

“They can’t sit there with a full beard and a dress,” Frank said.

Baldwin said that the whip count on ENDA is very strong but that they are pushing hard to whip against a politically charged Republican motion to recommit.

Baldwin had little sympathy for the complaints of moderate lawmakers who question the political wisdom of pushing gay rights bills in a difficult election year.

“Name one issue where you don’t hear that?” she said. “They should choose another profession.”