by Lou Chibbaro, Jr. | The Washington Blade
With free-standing LGBT supportive bills having little or no chance of passing in Congress next year due to the Republican-controlled House, advocates are developing plans to push for inserting LGBT-supportive language in broader, non-gay bills that enjoy bipartisan support, according to Capitol Hill insiders.
One bill under consideration for inclusion in a broader, non-LGBT measure is the Uniting American Families Act, which would provide equal immigration rights to foreign nationals who are same-sex partners of American citizens.
Another bill under similar consideration is the Tax Parity for Health Plan Beneficiaries Act, which would allow domestic partners to obtain the same tax exemption for health insurance and other health benefits provided by employers that married opposite-sex couples now enjoy.
“There are lots of ways you can do this,” said Allison Herwitt, legislative director of the Human Rights Campaign, which is mapping strategy for LGBT-supportive legislation in the 113th Congress, which convenes in January.
“You can do it in committee. You could try to get it put in the bill as the bill is being written,” Herwitt said. “It’s always better to have the pro-equality language that we want put in the bill before it gets to the floor because it’s easier to protect your language from being stripped than it is to affirmatively add language.”
Herwitt and representatives with other LGBT advocacy groups say that despite the positive developments for the LGBT community in the Nov. 6 election, the makeup of Congress has remained largely the same in terms of the support for at least seven LGBT related bills.
Among them is the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, or ENDA, which calls for banning employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, and the Respect for Marriage Act, which would repeal the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA. DOMA defines marriage under federal law as a union only between a man and a woman.
Steve Ralls, a spokesperson for the national LGBT group Immigration Equality, said the group is “highly optimistic” that the Uniting American Families Act will pass in the first half of next year as part of a broader immigration reform bill.
Ralls notes that President Obama, most Democratic lawmakers, and some congressional Republicans support an immigration reform measure. With the Hispanic vote going overwhelmingly to Obama and Democratic congressional candidates in the election two weeks ago, Republican leaders are much more likely to go along with a comprehensive immigration bill that’s strongly supported by the U.S. Latino community, Ralls said.
He said Immigration Equality is confident that the Senate, under the leadership of Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, will support the inclusion of language from the Uniting American Families Act in an immigration reform bill.
“I am very hopeful that by next summer we could have a very significant win on this,” Ralls said.
Herwitt said she is similarly hopeful that the House and Senate will go along with including the tax parity measure for employer health benefits aimed at same-sex partners within a tax-related bill expected to come up next year.
R. Clarke Cooper, president of the Log Cabin Republicans, has said an LGBT-related bill most likely to gain Republican support in Congress is one that would redress unfair taxation on Americans, including LGBT Americans.
While HRC and Immigration Equality expressed optimism over the strategy of seeking to add gay bills to broader non-LGBT legislation, gay Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who’s retiring from Congress in January, said he’s far less optimistic about the prospect of any LGBT legislation while Republicans control the House for at least the next two years.
“The Republicans continue to be opposed to everything,” he told the Blade. “Look at the Republican platform. We certainly can block any negative stuff they may try to do,” he said.
“But with the Republicans controlling the House there’s zero chance of anything good happening…They’re negative on everything. They voted 98 percent against us on everything that came up,” he said. “They voted 90 some percent to reaffirm the Defense of Marriage Act. So there’s zero chance of them allowing anything.”
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), one of the strongest allies of the LGBT community in Congress, while agreeing that the GOP majority in the House remains “fiercely opposed to LGBT rights,” is optimistic about possible advances for LGBT equality in Congress next year.
“On the heels of tremendous momentum nationally – with the recent victory of marriage equality in four states, the president’s explicit support for LGBT rights, the tide of federal court cases backing equal protection for LGBT Americans, and a rapidly growing acceptance of the LGBT community – we have a great deal of validation to take with us into the 113th Congress,” Nadler said in a statement to the Blade.
Nadler said he, too, is optimistic about the prospects passing the gay immigration and tax parity measures as part of broader bills.
“We must prepare to work together, with Democrats and our GOP allies, to use every tool available to us to advance pro-equality legislation now,” he said.
HRC’s Herwitt, however, points out that the breakdown in the House between LGBT supportive and anti-LGBT members in the 113th Congress will make it difficult to pass LGBT legislation in any form.
“If you look at the makeup of the 113th Congress, they are going in with about 225 members who are solidly anti-LGBT,” she said, noting that most in this group are Republicans but some Democrats. About 225 House members, most Democrats, are supporters of LGBT equality and are expected to vote for LGBT bills, Herwitt said.
The remaining 26 are “in the middle,” with HRC and congressional allies uncertain how they will vote.
With 218 being the magic number needed to pass a bill, an amendment, or a discharge petition that could force GOP House leaders to bring a bill to the floor for a vote, LGBT advocates are not too far away from reaching that number, Herwitt and other advocates said.
But even if they were to convince House GOP leaders to allow an LGBT bill like ENDA to reach the floor for a vote, supporters don’t think they have the votes now to pass such a bill.
“Clearly, what we need to do during these next two years is work like hell to change the hearts and minds of the voters to make sure we have the support we need in the next election in 2014,”said Maryland transgender rights advocate Dana Beyer.