Amid House intransigence, Democrats could attempt to force ENDA vote

John Boehner

With congressional Democrats seeking to force a vote on immigration reform in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives through the use of a discharge petition, the White House indicated Wednesday its openness to using a similar strategy to pass LGBT workplace protections.

Earlier Wednesday, House Democrats launched a discharge petition on immigration reform. A rare legislative maneuver that requires 218 signatures to be successful, a discharge petition would allow Democrats to bypass Republican leadership and bring immigration reform to the House floor for a vote. Few, however, are predicting the chamber’s 199 Democrats will be able to secure enough signatures from their Republican colleagues to force a vote on an immigration-reform bill that mirrors one passed by the Senate last year. Still, the move did draw headlines and praise from President Barack Obama.

“Last year, Democrats and Republicans in the Senate came together to pass a commonsense bill to fix our broken immigration system – a bill that would grow our economy, shrink our deficits, and reward businesses and workers that play by the rules. But so far, Republicans in the House have refused to allow meaningful immigration reform legislation to even come up for a vote,” Obama said in a statement. “That’s why, today, I applaud the efforts of Democrats in the House to give immigration reform the yes-or-no vote it deserves.”

Asked if Obama would support a similar strategy for approving the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) — another bill that achieved bipartisan Senate approval before being blocked by Republican leadership in the House — a White House spokesman said the administration would welcome any efforts to secure a vote on ENDA.

“The President continues to believe that the House should join the Senate and pass ENDA so he can sign it into law,” White House spokesman Shin Inouye said in an email to Metro Weekly. “We would welcome efforts to bring this legislation to the floor for a vote.”

Using a discharge petition to force a House vote on ENDA, which would prohibit most employers from discriminating in hiring on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, has been a strategy mentioned by ENDA supporters long before the Senate approved the measure last November. And much like immigration reform, ENDA supporters on and off Capitol Hill have voiced confidence that if House Speaker John Boehner were to allow ENDA to come for a vote, the bill would pass.

“In terms of the ENDA, ending discrimination in the workplace, employment discrimination, the votes are there,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) during an appearance at the Washington Ideas Forum last November. “We have over 95 percent of the Democrats committed to vote for it … but that means all we need are, again 10 percent. It’s the same number [as immigration reform], about 10 percent of the Republicans to take us to pass that. There must be 23 Republicans who don’t want discrimination in the workplace, right? You would think.”

But while Republican votes might be there in the House, that doesn’t necessarily mean those potential “Yea” votes would sign a discharge petition. During a roundtable discussion with a small group of reporters the day before the Senate passed ENDA, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid dismissed the possibility of a discharge petition, noting that Boehner has reined in his caucus from participating in such a legislative maneuver before.

It’s a sentiment that is shared by some advocates working toward ENDA’s passage in the House.

“The WH statement on immigration is entirely political blame shifting. We’re now there. Republicans are blocking immigration and the President needs to be seen as doing something productive to get it done. That’s what this is all about,” a political operative close to ENDA strategy in the House said in an email to Metro Weekly. “We will have a lot more to bargain with when we get to 218 [on-the-record supporters]. We know that moderate Republicans want to move on LGBT rights.”

ENDA currently has 202 co-sponsors in the House, including six Republicans: Reps. Michael Grimm (N.Y.), Christopher Gibson (N.Y.), Jon Runyan (N.J.), Charles Dent (Pa.), Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Fla.) and Richard Hanna (N.Y.).

Although some have drawn parallels between the House’s blockage of immigration reform and ENDA, a House Democratic leadership aide said they are distinctly dissimilar in that only those Republicans who have attached their names to the bill have expressed support for ENDA.

“With immigration, there are more than 30 House Republicans who have expressed support for a bill and only 3 of them are actually on the bill,” the aide told Metro Weekly via email. “We need heat on the Speaker and heat on more Members to make the case the bill has enough votes to pass.” According to the aide, House Democratic leadership has not made a decision on future discharge petitions and advertising such a move in advance would compromise any strategic value.

But with discharge petitions more often failing than succeeding (Democrats have twice failed to deploy discharge petitions in the past six months to raise the minimum wage and reopen the federal government), advocates continue to focus on shoring up a majority of ENDA supporters in the House.

“The work ahead of us is to get to 218 members, from both parties, on the record supporting ENDA,” said Human Rights Campaign Vice President Fred Sainz. “We’re keeping our eye on that prize.”

[Photo: John Boehner. Credit: Official Photo by Heather Reed.]

Justin Snow is Metro Weekly's political editor and White House correspondent. He can be reached at jsnow@metroweekly.com.

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