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Gay Rights Bill Stalls in House

Democrats delayed moving forward with landmark gay rights legislation on Wednesday amid a continuing dispute within their Caucus over the exclusion of workplace protections for transgendered people.

The bill, which faces a veto threat, would protect workers from workplace discrimination due to their sexual orientation, although there are exclusions for religious institutions and the military.

House Education and Labor Chairman George Miller (D-Calif.) said on Wednesday he has told advocates for transgender rights that it would not be in their interests to bring an amendment to the bill because it would be defeated handily.

“A weak vote doesn’t advance the cause at all and right now it’s a pretty weak vote,” Miller said of the transgender amendment proposed by Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), the only openly lesbian Member.

Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), the principal sponsor and the only openly gay male Member, filed the bill originally with transgender protections included, but said that it had to come out to give the broader bill a chance on the floor.

The exclusion has divided the gay community, with some arguing that only a bill including transgender protections should be considered or else the issue should be shelved until the political support is there. But others have argued that Democrats should seize the opportunity to pass the most significant federal gay rights legislation ever.

“It would be a mistake to let that kill the whole bill,” Frank said. “What we’re trying to get through to them is that we’re not ready for a vote on that that will be helpful to them.”

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) put off the bill to give vote counters time to see how much support Baldwin can generate.

“The Speaker’s priority is to move the most inclusive bill as possible as quickly as possible,” Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill said. “The leadership is working closely with Congresswoman Baldwin to develop an accurate count of members supporting her amendment and will then make decisions for scheduling the bill for the House floor.”

Democrats nonetheless believe the bill would be a major accomplishment, regardless of the transgender issue, after Republicans spent recent years trying to pass a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage and using opposition to gay rights as a political-wedge issue.

“It’s an historic piece of basic civil rights not to be fired because of sexual orientation,” Miller said. “This is what the Democratic Party stands for, against basic discrimination.”

The Bush administration’s Statement of Administration Policy argued that the bill could violate immunity of states under the 11th Amendment to the Constitution and said it would impinge on religious freedoms as well despite the exemptions provided in the bill.

Miller predicted that as many as a dozen Republicans may sign on to the bill, and he dismissed Bush’s veto threat.

“It’s a long way to the end of this journey,” Miller said. “Statements made at this point I don’t give a lot of credence too.”

Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), a co-sponsor of the bill, said Democrats should keep transgender language out of the bill to help it pass. “There is not support for that,” Shays said.

But Shays said passing the underlying bill builds on the work of many states that already have passed similar laws.

“We know it works,” Shays said. “A good school teacher should not lose his job because in their private life they are gay,” he said. “It’s conduct that matters, it’s not their preference.”

Frank said that in addition to the transgender issue, backers are working on the religious exemption language to address concerns, noting that it was one of the reasons the administration cited for the veto threat.

Republicans appeared to be enjoying the fight.

“I think it’s helpful to us,” House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (Mo.) said. “They are divided on it even in their conference, which is one of the reasons why it’s not on the floor this week.”

A House Republican leadership aide ripped the Democrats for spending time on the issue.

“Are special rights for those who are transgendered or perceived to be transgendered in the workplace really among the top 10 challenges facing American families right now? No wonder they’re fighting amongst themselves again. Perception is everything in politics, and the Democrats’ stance on this issue is not perceived well outside of San Francisco.”

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