Thursday, January 29, 2009

Congress Ready to Move on LGBT Rights Bills

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Observer Update) - Activists are working with lawmakers in the 111th Congress to take up and pass legislation that would grant new rights and protections to LGBT Americans, the Washington Blade reported.

The legislation that sources agree would be taken up first is the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which would allow the federal government to prosecute hate crimes targeting Gays. As in the last Congress, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), the longest-serving openly Gay lawmaker, is expected to introduce the legislation in the House and Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) is expected to push the bill in the Senate. Kennedy, who has brain cancer and suffered a seizure at a Senate luncheon in honor of President Obama, was later reported to be recovering.

In the last session of Congress, the House approved a hate crimes bill, but the Senate took no action on the legislation. Bills that only pass through one chamber of Congress must be reintroduced in the next session if they are to become law. The Human Rights Campaign has called on Obama to work with Congress to pass hate crimes legislation within six months of his tenure.

Frank told the Blade on Jan. 16 that he expects the House to pass hate crimes legislation in the spring and Congress will have the bill on Obama’s desk by summer. The lawmaker said Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), chair of the Judiciary Committee, is taking the lead on “getting a list of sponsors right now.”

Becky Dansky, federal legislative director for the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, said hate crimes legislation would be the “first to move” among Gay-related bills. She said the bill would come up in the next couple of months in the House, but the timetable in the Senate is less clear. Dansky said there “may or may not” be hearings on hate crimes legislation this session because the bill has been around for a long time and “people know this bill — they know what it does. There is the potential that the new attorney general or a representative from the White House may want to go on the record testifying in support of the bill, so that could potentially lead to a hearing,” she said. Dansky said she’s “pretty confident” that there are enough votes in Congress to pass the legislation, adding that the roadblock for the last eight years has been “we haven’t had a president who would sign.”

Also on the docket for Gay activists is a version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act that would bar discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Like the hate crimes legislation, Frank is expected to introduce the House version of ENDA and Kennedy is expected to introduce the Senate version. In the last session of Congress, the House approved a Gay-only version of ENDA, but the Senate took no action on the legislation.

Dansky said she expects ENDA to be introduced in the spring and passed by Congress this fall, although she said the Senate would wait to see what House does with ENDA before acting on it. Frank also predicted Congress would approve ENDA in the fall. Dansky said she didn’t know whether hearings would happen with ENDA and that activists are “not talking about them at this point.” Frank, who two years ago was criticized for advancing the Gay-only ENDA, said the “key question” is whether lawmakers “have the votes for a fully inclusive bill.”

“We introduced it without checking, frankly,” he said. “We assumed we had it. We didn’t have it.” He said efforts toward passing ENDA would be helped by the addition of 21 more Democrats in Congress. “That’s not 21 more votes for Transgender-inclusive [legislation], but it’s at least a dozen, which helps,” he said. “And then plus the various coalitions, including Transgender groups are doing what wasn’t done previously, which is lobbying member by member.”

Dansky said “education on the grassroots level” would be key to informing members of Congress about the meaning of the gender identity language. She said lawmakers are already “meeting trans people in their district or the families of trans individuals or allies … who are supportive of a trans-inclusive bill.”

The repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which prohibits open Gays from serving in the military, is another priority for Gay activists in this session of Congress. Robert Kellar, a spokesperson for Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.), said the lawmaker intends to introduce legislation in the House that would repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and replace it with a non-discrimination policy — similar to the bill she introduced last session — within the next couple of weeks.

Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, said he expects Kennedy and a yet-to-be identified Republican to introduce a companion bill in the Senate along a similar timeframe. No Senate bill was introduced in the last session. But those familiar with Congress have diverging opinions on when a repeal might happen.
HRC has called on Obama to work with Congress to develop a plan to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” within the first 100 days of his administration.

Tauscher told CNN in November that she thinks Congress would tackle the issue this year. And in a statement last week, Sarvis said repeal may not be practical in the first 100 days, but would be “doable this year.”

But Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, was quoted in Roll Call last month as saying it could be a few years before anything changes. And while Frank told the Blade he is “convinced” a repeal would happen within the first two years of the Obama administration, he said the president must first make his decision on “getting out of Iraq.” Dansky said it’s possible that Congress may not even vote on repeal in this session. “I would expect when we talk about progress on ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ in this Congress, what we’re talking about is getting more support in both chambers of Congress and getting more hearings,” she said. But Dansky said she is “really optimistic” about a repeal and that last year’s congressional hearing on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is indicative of “making more advances this Congress” on this issue.
“There were members of that committee who the day before were saying to us, ‘I’m not sure where I am on this,’ who were so enraged by the other side’s testimony that they were screaming at them,” she said. “You were like, ‘24 hours ago you told me you didn’t know where you were. You know where you are now.’” Dansky said she believes many members of Congress would be uncomfortable moving forward on a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal without extensive hearings because it’s a military issue and hearings were held on the issue when it became law in 1993.

In an interview Jan. 16, Sarvis said the timeline for repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is “a mix of recognizing that obviously the economy and the financial situation is the No. 1 priority of the new administration … but it’s also recognizing that ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ is something that can certainly be done in this Congress.” Sarvis said he does not expect congressional hearings on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in the first quarter of this year for either chamber of Congress. But he said there is a “realistic” opportunity to secure a repeal as part of the defense budget authorization process, a tactic that SLDN has recommended to Obama’s team. Sarvis said including repeal language in the budget request is an opportunity for the White House, the Pentagon, the defense secretary and the Joint Chiefs of Staff to show that they are aligned on this issue. He also said making the language part of the budget recommendation shifts the burden to opponents. “If there is someone on the committee or on the floor who disagrees, the burden is on them to move to extract the recommendation from the [budget] — and that’s a very important shift,” he said.

Congress is expected to act on the Obama administration’s defense budget recommendation for the next fiscal year in June or July, Sarvis said. He added that he thinks getting enough votes for repeal in the armed services committees will be “challenging,” but “more than doable.” Sarvis said SLDN met with Obama’s team last week and presented a report produced in November in which 100 high-ranking military officers called for repeal. He described the meeting as “very encouraging” and said transition officials told SLDN that Obama shared the organization’s position on the issue.

The future is less clear for other legislation on which Gay activists are encouraging action. For repealing the Defense of Marriage Act, a 1996 law that prohibits the federal government from recognizing same-sex relationships, activists said it’s unlikely that Congress would take action anytime soon. Frank said Congress is “unfortunately a long ways from having the votes to repeal DOMA.” Dansky described a repeal of DOMA as unlikely to happen this year. “But it’s something that is definitely on a lot of people’s minds post-Prop 8, and we’re starting to see, I think, a turn in terms of support for repealing,” she said. “But that’s something that’s in the infant stage compared to the other legislation.”

Another bill being discussed is the Domestic Partner Benefits & Obligations Act, which would grant the partners of Gay federal employees the same benefits that are available to the spouses of straight employees. Frank said he didn’t yet have a timeline for the legislation. Dansky noted that action on that bill was more likely in 2010 than 2009. But lawmakers were taking action to confront the domestic HIV/AIDS epidemic by including funding to fight the disease as part of the economic stimulus package being considered in Congress. Included in the House version of the package is a $355 million proposal for domestic HIV/AIDS prevention. Carl Schmid, director of federal affairs for the AIDS Institute, commended lawmakers for proposing such funding. “We strongly agree with the House,” he said in a Jan. 16 statement. “Preventing disease, such as HIV/AIDS, will dramatically reduce future healthcare costs.”

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