The chairman of the Senate committee overseeing one of the last major pieces of LGBT-rights legislation today promised movement on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.
During an event at the Center for American Progress, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who is chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said action will be taken on ENDA this year.
"I've been on ENDA for years — the Employment Non-Discrimination Act — and as chairman of the HELP committee, I intend to move it this year," Harkin said. "We're going to move ENDA this year, so I just want you to know that." Harkin's comments come hours before President Barack Obama is scheduled to deliver his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress.
Although Obama publicly supports ENDA, the president has faced renewed calls from advocates to sign an executive order that would prohibit federal contractors from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
On Sunday, protestors organized outside the White House urging Obama to sign the executive order, which he promised to do as a candidate for president. Indeed, on Feb. 25, 2008, that Obama filled out a presidential-candidate questionnaire for the Houston GLBT Political Caucus. Answering a number of questions about his positions on LGBT equality, in question No. 6 Obama was asked if he would support a nondiscrimination policy that includes sexual orientation and gender identity for federal contractors. Obama responded "Yes."
However, Obama backed off that position last April during the presidential campaign, disappointing many advocates who believe signing such an order would help build momentum for ENDA, which remains stalled in Congress after facing decades of Republican opposition. Instead, the White House has argued they would prefer to see passage of federal legislation that would protect all workers and not just federal contractors.
Nevertheless, Obama is reported to once again be considering signing the executive order. The Washington Post reported Sunday that "two people familiar with White House thinking said the president may reverse that decision and issue the order if Congress does not pass broader legislation offering protection for gays in the workplace."
Asked yesterday if that was the case, White House press secretary Jay Carney reaffirmed that Obama believes "we ought to move forward with congressional comprehensive action on this issue, and we will continue to press Congress to do that."
Representatives from various organizations have said they hope to see ENDA marked up in the Senate, where Democrats hold the majority, and possibly make it to the floor of the chamber for a vote.
"We are joining with other LGBT advocates to urge Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to keep his promise from more than three years ago to bring ENDA to the Senate floor for a long overdue vote," Freedom to Work President Tico Almeida told Metro Weekly.
While Harkin's comments today indicate that may happen even without the president's signing of an executive order, a battle will remain in the Republican-controlled House where ENDA simply does not have the votes to pass.
"It would be wonderful if the President used the State of the Union or another high-profile speech to challenge both chambers of Congress to pass ENDA," Almedia added. "However, this morning’s great news that Chairman Harkin will move ENDA in the Senate this year does not fix the obstructionism by House Speaker John Boehner."
[Photo: Barack Obama and Tom Harkin in the Oval Office (Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza).]
Watch Harkin's remarks here: