Boehner Under Bipartisan Pressure to Bring Up ENDA

(Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
(Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Posted November 4, 2013 at 4:25pm

“Speaker Boehner, don’t stand on the wrong side of history” may be the the subject line of a House Democratic press release on gay rights legislation, but it’s also a message coming from some members of Speaker John A. Boehner’s own party.

“We ought to take this vote with nothing to fear,” Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa., told CQ Roll Call on Monday afternoon. “The Republican Party has to understand where the country is moving on this issue, particularly younger voters who feel that we have to have a more libertarian view on this issue.”

“It isn’t right to be fired just because you are gay,” added Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., in an e-mailed statement. “I am hopeful that my colleagues in the House will … do their part to ensure equality for all.”

Still, just hours before the Senate takes a test vote on a bill to protect gays, lesbians and transgender people from workplace discrimination, Boehner’s spokesman indicated the legislation is not on the Ohio Republican’s agenda.

The statement from Boehner’s office against ENDA did not, of course, hint at anxiety over moving on controversial legislation that could incite ire from the right-wing base.

“The Speaker believes this legislation will increase frivolous litigation and cost American jobs, especially small business jobs,” Michael Steel, Boehner’s spokesman, said simply.

A GOP aide added that Boehner has long held the position that ENDA is bad policy, and that he believes gays and lesbians are already covered by existing employment law.

But Boehner’s opposition comes as the Senate seems poised to approve the legislation this week, with 60 public supporters, including an unusually united Democratic party.

On the House side, should Republican leaders opt not to put the Senate-passed bill on the floor, they risk accusations of living in the past.

Democrats are already on the offensive.

“This isn’t the first time the House GOP is choosing to stand on the wrong side of history,” read Democrats’ email message on Monday. “Speaker Boehner spent $2.3 million taxpayer dollars defending DOMA — a discriminatory policy that denied federal benefits to same-sex couples — before the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional and discarded in the dustbin of history.

“Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once said: ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,'” the email continued. “Just how long will this arc be, Speaker Boehner?”

Some Republicans, such as Dent, are deeply concerned about the long-term implications of failing to move on a piece of legislation like ENDA.

“I think it’s important for the Republican Party to step up on an issue like this and make it clear that we opposed discrimination any form,” Dent said.

When the Democrat-controlled House passed an iteration of ENDA in late 2007 — one that didn’t include protections for transgender individuals and ultimately stalled in the Senate — 35 Republicans voted “yes.”

Today, only 12 of those lawmakers remain in office, and only two of them, Dent and Ros-Lehtinen, are co-sponsors of the House’s ENDA bill. They are joined by three moderate House Republicans who would be voting in favor of ENDA for the first time: Jon Runyan of New Jersey and New York Reps. Chris Gibson and Richard Hanna.

Hanna also co-sponsored House ENDA legislation in the 112th Congress, and the Log Cabin Republicans released a press release on the occasion of the endorsement in 2011.

“All Americans deserve the freedom to work without fear of discrimination or harassment, yet it remains legal to discriminate based on sexual orientation,” said Hanna. “This is unacceptable and undermines are economic productivity.”

The remaining 10 Republicans who took affirmative stances on the House’s last ENDA vote six years ago have not yet taken public positions on the 2013 bill, and their offices did not immediately respond to inquires by CQ Roll Call regarding their latest perspectives. (A spokesman for Rep. Frank A. LoBiondo, R-N.J., said his boss was still reviewing the differences between the two versions.)

But House GOP responses to the Democratic House’s 2010 push to pass ENDA through both chambers could be telling. That year, the bill included new language to protect transgender workers from discriminatory practices, which caused several one-time sympathetic Republican lawmakers to second-guess their support.

Those Republicans for whom the transgender provision prompted consternation included National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Greg Walden of Oregon and House Budget Chairman and 2012 vice presidential nominee Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, along with Reps. Pat Tiberi of Ohio and John Campbell of California.

In the 113th Congress, House Republicans also would face a difficult choice in forcing a vote on legislation that’s not only unpopular with leadership but also with influential advocacy groups. Heritage Action for America has pledged to “score” votes on the Senate’s ENDA measure, making a similar House-side scoring inevitable.

Dent said that he hoped, in the very least, leadership would allow members to vote for ENDA as an amendment to another piece of legislation.

“I don’t know if I’d be the one introducing it, but I believe it’s appropriate, to have a vote on an amendment that speaks to fairness,” Dent said. “Let the House work its will.”