By Lisa Keen
It’s show time in Washington, D.C. Time to talk turkey and put some money where the mouth is. Time to put the pedal to the metal and the rubber to the road.
Congress is back for the last three months of the Obama administration’s first year in the White House, and suddenly, every bill is on fire – eight of 12 appropriations bills in the Senate, bills to steady a still wobbly economy facing an almost 10-percent unemployment rate, and bills to address climate change, renew estate tax provisions and decide whether a government – or public – health insurance option should be part of health care insurance reform.
Most media spotlights are on health care. It is the Obama administration’s self-selected showdown against the federal government’s tendencies toward what the president calls “inertia” when it comes to helping people who can’t afford health care.
Passage of some meaningful health care bill will either make or break the Obama legacy for all time, according to many pundits. But while that’s the sort of hyperbole necessary to get most people to read real news, the eventual bill could have real significance to the LGBT community. For instance, some of the current versions of health care reform bills include provisions to collect data concerning sexual orientation and to provide better for early treatment of HIV.
“We have provisions that have survived committee (votes), but they still need to get all meshed together in whatever bill comes out,” says Allison Herwitt, legislative director for the Human Rights Campaign. HRC is widely recognized as the LGBT community’s voice on Capitol Hill.
Herwitt says HRC is “hopeful” that, when leaders of the Democratic majority in Congress sit down with White House staffers this month “and figure out what they want the final bill to look like,” those LGBT provisions will survive.
“They’re very much a priority for us,” said Herwitt.
So is a defense spending authorization bill. That’s because the Matthew Shepard hate crimes legislation, adding sexual orientation and gender identity to the existing federal hate crimes law, has been attached to that funding bill in the Senate. Because the House passed a stand-alone hate crimes bill, a House-Senate conference committee must wrestle this month to come up with a final version of the defense funding bill to send back to both houses. Herwitt and others seem pretty confident that the Democratic leadership will fight to keep the hate crimes provisions in the defense bill.
Originally, the president had threatened to veto the defense bill because it included provisions such as funding for F-22 jets. But the objectionable provisions have reportedly been mitigated and “there is a strong will in the leadership and the White House,” said HRC policy vice president David Smith, to pass the hate crimes legislation.
That sort of “robust” support is imperative, says former White House staffer Richard Socarides, who said he thinks the hate crimes legislation will become law this year.
“I think the mood in the country and Congress is pretty good for a robust gay civil rights legislative agenda,” said Socarides. “But you need to put the force of the president behind it. You need to put some vigorous advocacy behind it. A sort of agenda that gets a lukewarm push to it or doesn’t have a lot of firepower behind it is going to go nowhere.”
The strength of Obama’s firepower behind LGBT-related legislative goals lingers as a bit of a rub between the LGBT community and the Obama administration. Candidate Obama promised much for the LGBT community; and President Obama reiterated many of those promises to quell a growing chorus of impatience in June.
At a small Oval Office ceremony, calling for federal agencies to provide whatever benefits they could to the partners of gay federal employees, President Obama gave a verbal nod to a bill seeking to ensure equal benefits for the partners of gay federal employees – The Domestic Partners Benefits and Obligations Act. The bill’s chief sponsor, Rep. Tammy Baldwin, said the bill “really got a boost by (the president’s) strong endorsement.”
Baldwin could not be reached for this article, but HRC’s Herwitt said the DPBOA bill might get a floor vote this fall in the House and a committee vote in the Senate. That puts it right behind hate crimes for likely action this fall.
Everything else tends to look more uncertain – with “maybe” hearings this fall or as-yet-unidentified sponsors to introduce them.
The Employment Non-Discrimination Act has been introduced in the House and the Senate and Rep. Barney Frank thinks the all-inclusive bill could get a committee hearing this month and a vote on the House floor this fall.
The Senate is less promising. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) took over championship of the bill from the late Sen. Ted Kennedy. He says hate crimes has to come first, then ENDA supporters need to “check in with” senators who haven’t weighed in on the legislation in four years.
“Then we’ll work with senators and try to put together a plan,” says Merkley.
Merkley says he has not yet had a conversation with the White House about ENDA, but signals from the staff have been “very supportive” and Merkley says he will ask President Obama to “support the bill in a public manner.” HRC’s Herwitt is hopeful a Senate hearing could take place sometime this fall.
Four other bills are languishing far behind, with no one in the Senate lined up yet to introduce them and prospects in the House fairly uncertain:
* Defense of Marriage Act repeal has not yet been introduced in either chamber, though Herwitt says she hopes a bill will be introduced in the House this month;
* “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy repeal has been introduced in the House and may be introduced in the Senate this fall, says Herwitt. But Rep. Frank and HRC say they don’t imagine DADT will get a floor vote in the House before next year. Rep. Alcee Hastings announced in August that he was withdrawing an amendment he had prepared seeking to prohibit the Defense Department from spending any federal funds to enforce its DADT policy against gays;
* The Uniting American Families Act immigration legislation has been introduced in the House only and is pending some effort to address immigration issues overall, an effort that is waiting in line behind all the other urgent matters of Congress; and
* Family Leave Inclusion legislation, an effort to ensure that LGBT families are covered under the federal Family Leave law has also been introduced in the House only. No one has come forward in the Senate to introduce the bill.
And so the chorus of LGBT complaint is beginning to warm-up again.
Speaking at a gay Democratic event in San Diego Aug. 22, the Obama campaign’s openly gay deputy Steve Hildebrand said “all of us need to put pressure on (the president) and put pressure on Congress to do the right thing.”
Clinton White House staffer Socarides said he thinks “we can get hate crimes, an inclusive ENDA, and end to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” before mid-term elections (in November 2010), but not without an aggressive push by the administration. And so far I don’t see it.”