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Fresh Off ‘Don’t Ask’ Win, Gay-Rights Groups Look Ahead

The repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy” has boosted the spirits of gay-rights activists, but it is not expected to bolster the rest of their legislative agenda, which likely will hit roadblocks in the 112th Congress.

Lobbyists for gay-rights organizations say that next year they will focus on unfinished business including employment nondiscrimination legislation, providing domestic partnership benefits to federal workers and repealing the Defense of Marriage Act.

But they are not optimistic that Republican leaders in the House will push through their issues.

“I don’t think they will go negative on us. I just think they will not do anything to bring about positive change,” said Fred Sainz, the vice president for communications and marketing for the Human Rights Campaign, the largest gay-rights organization.

Some of the activists’ priorities, such as the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, have been lingering for years. The House passed a version of ENDA in 2007, but a revised measure that included protections for transgendered people did not make it out of committee this year.

Sainz said his group will focus more on executive branch agencies to pursue equality issues for gay people as well as lobbying at the state level for passage of laws allowing gay marriage. Outside the legislative arena, HRC is pushing more companies to enact gay-friendly policies, such as domestic partner benefits.

R. Clarke Cooper, president of the Log Cabin Republicans, said GOPers have made it clear they will focus more on fiscal rather than social issues next year.

But he added that Republicans may be receptive to legislation that deals with taxes, such as extending tax breaks on health benefits for partners of employees.

Cooper cited as progress the fact that many Republicans have become more comfortable with having gay advocates in their midst, noting that his group participated in the Young Guns events spearheaded by GOP House leaders during the 2010 midterm campaigns.

Cooper also said he has met several times with Speaker-designate John Boehner (R-Ohio), including having his first conversation with the leader at a fundraiser at the Capitol Hill Club.

“He said, ‘Not everyone can be a Susan Collins or Ileana Ros-Lehtinen,’” said Cooper, referring to two socially moderate Republicans, the Maine Senator and Florida House Member, who voted for the repeal.

Cooper said Log Cabin agreed to help raise money and work on behalf of certain Republican candidates. In return, Cooper said, he asked that Republican leaders convey to social conservatives in the party that “if they had nothing nice to say about gays and lesbians that they say nothing at all.”

And a number of conservative Republicans, including Rep. Jeff Flake (Ariz.) and Sen. Richard Burr (N.C.), surprised gay activists in their support of the DADT repeal.

The Log Cabin Republicans had also successfully sued in federal court in California to overturn the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Cooper said that his group would likely wait to drop the suit until after the Pentagon completes its implementation of the new policy, which could take months.

Before the repeal is officially dropped, the president, the defense secretary and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff must certify that the military is ready for the change.

Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, which has been active in pushing for the repeal, said his group will now pivot to monitoring the certification process.

Sarvis added that the Pentagon should not prolong the next stage. “They’ve had 10 months to work on these things,” he said.

In the past year, gay-rights lobbyists have spent much of their time and financial resources on fighting to repeal the Clinton-era policy banning openly gay people from serving in the military.

HRC spent $3.5 million on its lobbying efforts, the most ever for any advocacy campaign spearheaded by the association, Sainz said.

He added that the Senate’s approval of the repeal should bolster the group’s fundraising among donors who might otherwise have been dispirited if the measure had failed.

Raising money, however, will be more difficult for groups whose mission has been primarily advocating on behalf of gay members of the military.

“This will definitely change the fundraising calculus for us,” said Alex Nicholson, the executive director of Servicemembers United, a group that advocates on behalf of gay soldiers. Nicholson said about half the group’s funds come from gay foundations.

But he added that his group will still play a major role providing support for gay military members, who now may feel more free to join such an association.

Nicholson, who tangled with some of the other gay-rights groups, said the lobbying campaign was challenging. Part of the difficulty, he said, was having to “cut through the inter-organizational politics.”

“Various groups can be vicious sometimes,” he said, referring to arguments about “who’s going to stand next to whom.”

Other gay-rights lobbyists, however, complained that Nicholson, who criticized Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) for his strategy, was often impolitic in his public comments.

There were also disputes among gay-rights groups over whether celebrities such as Lady Gaga helped their cause by publicly lobbying for the repeal.

Despite the lobbying challenges, gay activists see the final results as historic.

“I liken what happened on Saturday to the Berlin Wall coming down,” Sainz said.

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