Metro Weekly

As ENDA returns to Congress, Obama’s White House remains a key component

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When the White House puts its full weight behind a piece of legislation it wants to see become law, that push is hard to miss.

Immigration reform and gun control have so far dominated the start of Obama’s second term, and the focus on those issues has seen the president deliver a number of speeches, hold meetings at the White House and dispatch Vice President Joe Biden to lobby former colleagues on Capitol Hill. 

When the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) is reintroduced in the Senate and House of Representatives today, however, few expect to see the same fervent push from the Obama administration as has been seen on immigration and gun control.

Despite Obama’s place in history as the nation’s most pro-gay president — the first sitting president to openly endorse same-sex marriage and who then called for full equality for gay people in his second inaugural address — expectations remain low for White House involvement in ENDA. 

Although the president has endorsed ENDA, which would prohibit workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity nationwide, the White House has been mum on what, if anything, it plans to do to build support for a bill that has no clear path to passage in the House.

As recently as Tuesday, White House press secretary Jay Carney deflected questions on what Obama has done to build support for ENDA, instead directing reporters to his broader record on LGBT rights. 

“He will work with like-minded lawmakers who support movement on this legislation to see it passed and hopefully signed into law,” Carney said. “That’s how this process works. This is the approach the president thought was the right one to take and he is encouraged by the progress being made.”

White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett recently said in an interview with Reuters that ENDA is a priority for the administration, adding, “Right now the votes aren’t there, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be.” According to Reuters, congressional aides say they have seen little evidence the White House is working to build support for ENDA. 

What role the president should play in the coming months as ENDA is debated on Capitol Hill remains a point of disagreement by supporters.

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), the champion of ENDA in the Senate, told Metro Weekly he sees endorsements from the business community and a majority of Fortune 500 companies as being critical for securing Republican support.

“Quite frankly, I’m not sure the president is the key to this. I think the key is we have 15 states that have a track record that has worked very well for business and very well for the opportunity of citizens,” Merkley said.

It’s a sentiment echoed by Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, who questions if an aggressive Obama on ENDA might do more harm than good in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. “I’m certain the president will be there when we need the president to be there. But it would not help this bill for it to be the president’s top priority,” Keisling said.

Expectations for some kind of White House involvement still remain. According to Michael Cole-Schwartz, a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, “As the bill gets introduced and brought up in the Senate, we expect the White House to play a key role in advocating for the legislation.” 

Nevertheless, vague promises have left some advocates rankled, particularly as the White House continues to delay on a long-called-for executive order that would prohibit federal contractors from LGBT workplace discrimination – a move that would protect 20 percent of the civilian workforce.

It was a little more than a year ago Jarrett informed advocates during a meeting at the White House that Obama would not sign such an order at that time, despite promising to do so as a candidate for president. Pressure has increased on the White House to act since then, with 37 senators, 110 members of Congress and 54 progressive organizations signing on to letters calling for Obama to sign the executive order and arguing such a move would build momentum for ENDA. However, the president hasn’t acted, instead arguing through Carney that the administration supports passage of an inclusive ENDA that protects everyone.

“I’ve been urging the administration to do this because it’s something that could’ve been done six months ago, could’ve been done a year ago,” Merkley said. “Anytime there is discrimination that is affecting the opportunity of citizens, it’s wrong. And wrongs should be righted.”

With ENDA’s reintroduction, Merkley says he predicts little action from the White House on the executive order. “My sense is they have chosen not to and now with this pending debate my sense is they are not proceeding on a fast track, I guess you could put it that way,” Merkley added.

Nearly $300 billion in federal contract dollars is funneled into states that have no LGBT workplace protections each year, according to a recent study.

“I still think the president should fulfill his campaign promise on the executive order right away, but ENDA’s introduction gives the White House the opportunity to put some action behind their words,” said Tico Almeida, president of Freedom to Work, adding that Obama could deliver a high-profile speech explaining how ENDA benefits America’s businesses and LGBT employees, and he could publicly challenge both chambers of Congress to hold an ENDA vote this year.

In April 2012 after the White House announced no action would be taken on an executive order, advocates, including Winnie Stachelberg, the executive vice president for external affairs at the Center for American Progress, were told the White House would conduct a study on LGBT workplace discrimination. One year later, with ENDA on the verge of reintroduction, no study has been released. 

When asked for an update on the reported study, White House spokesman Shin Inouye stated, “We continue to study the issue.”

As the focus on workplace protections shifts back to Capitol Hill, where many are confident a Senate vote on ENDA will happen for the first time in 17 years, advocates insist an executive order remains necessary. But for a president who has already done so much for LGBT equality and who seems sincerely proud of those accomplishments, his limited role on workplace protections remains puzzling.

“The president has been there every time the community has asked him to be there on ENDA,” Keisling said. But on the executive order, “That’s a mistake on the White House’s part. They should just sign it and move on.”

[Photo: Barack Obama (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)]

Justin Snow is Metro Weekly's former political editor and White House correspondent. Follow him on Twitter @JustinCSnow.

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