Gay discrimination bill going to Senate floor

Tico Almeida, president Freedom to Work

Tico Almeida, president Freedom to Work

Senate majority leader Harry Reid will bring the Employment Nondiscrimination Act to the Senate floor between now and Thanksgiving, his office confirmed Monday. The bill would ban workforce discrimination against gays, lesbians and transgendered people.

A vote is likely but Reid’s office cautioned that the actual vote could come after Thanksgiving. In any event Senate action is very likely this session. The GOP-controlled House is another matter.

Tico Almeida, a former committee aid to Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., and president of Freedom to Work, an LGBT advocacy group working solely on ENDA, said Democrats led by House minority leader Nancy Pelos, D-San Francisco could push a discharge petition to force the bill to the House floor, although she has not announced a decision yet. The House version of ENDA has three Republican co-sponsors: Richard Hanna of upstate New York, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida and Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania.

The legislation was first introduced two decades ago in 1994 and had its first vote in 1996, the same year the Defense of Marriage Act was signed by former President Bill Clinton. That law was struck down this year by the Supreme Court. The current ENDA bill has 54 Senate co-sponsors.

Almeida said the bill’s Senate chances have been enhanced enormously by provisions negotiated by Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch to protect religious freedom, calling the move “very significant.” Almeida helped write the exemption as a staff counsel for the House Education and Labor Committee when Miller was its chair. Some gay rights groups say the exemption is too broad and want it narrowed; others such as Almeida said the exemption is backed by 50 years of case law under Title 7 of the Civil Rights Act, and tampering with it could kill potential GOP support.

Almeida said ENDA has become so widely accepted, Republicans in conservative districts have giving up any frontal assault and now simply avoid talking about it. He said the transgender inclusion has not been an issue. Employment discrimination has become “even harder than marriage for Republicans to oppose,” he said.

Several GOP Senators are considered possible yes votes, including conservative Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, Bob Portman of Ohio, Jeff Flake of Arizona and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire.

Almeida said he is “very confident” the bill could reach the 60-vote threshold needed for Senate passage.

Carolyn Lochhead