From the Washington Blade
By CHRIS JOHNSON, Washington Blade
Aug 5 2009, 12:00 PM
UPDATED: Aug 5, 1:46 PM
An Oregon lawmaker made history Wednesday by introducing a version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act in the U.S. Senate, marking the first time ever that a trans-inclusive bill has been considered in that chamber of Congress.
Sen. Jeff Merkley, a first-term Democratic senator, told the Blade he’s sponsoring the legislation because “it stems from core conviction” about his belief in fairness and equality.
“For me, one of the huge issues that I’ve cared a lot about is equality under the law and fairness to all Americans, and this was just a core part of the way I view the world,” he said.
Merkley said he was designated as the lead sponsor of ENDA because he championed a similar non-discrimination bill in Oregon as a lawmaker in the state House, as well as legislation enacting domestic partnerships in Oregon.
As of Wednesday, Merkley had 37 co-sponsors to the legislation, including Sens. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) and Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), according to a statement released by Merkley’s office.
Merkley is a member of the Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee, which would hold hearings on the legislation and fine-tune the bill before it reaches the Senate floor. But whether the committee will hold hearings on the legislation, Merkley said, has “yet to be addressed.”
“That is certainly one of the things that I’ll be pursuing with Sen. Dodd and with Sen. Kennedy’s team,” Merkley said.
Allison Herwitt, the Human Rights Campaign’s legislative director, said HRC is hoping for hearings in the Senate, but doesn’t know whether they would occur in September or October.
While Kennedy was slated earlier to introduce the Senate version of ENDA this Congress, Merkley said he’s championing the legislation instead because Kennedy has not been as present on Capitol Hill as he had been in the past. Kennedy is battling brain cancer.
“Sen. Kennedy talked with his team, and felt that he wants to take key issues that he cares a lot about and pass the baton because he’s not as able to be here in person in the way that he would have been here a year ago,” Merkley said.
Merkley wouldn’t confirm that Kennedy’s illness prevented him for being the lead sponsor of the legislation.
On the House side, gay Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) introduced a version of ENDA in June. HRC is expecting further activity on the bill in September when lawmakers return from their August recess.
Herwitt said she’s expecting the House Education & Labor Committee to hold hearings on the bill in September, followed by a markup later the same month. She said HRC is hoping for a floor vote in October.
“Barney has said numerous times that he wants to come back together in September, see where we are with the votes and hopefully be able to move the fully inclusive bill to the House floor,” she said.
Passing ENDA in the Senate, Merkley said, will require member-to-member conversations. Merkley said he’s uncertain about the timing for passing the bill or when a committee markup of the legislation or any floor vote could take place.
“I certainly am going to be having conversations with basically all my colleagues,” he said. “We want to get a complete a lay of the land and understand how close we are to the level of votes that we need.”
Asked how confident he was that ENDA would be enacted into law this Congress, Merkley replied: “Ask me that after I and my co-sponsors have the conversations with our colleagues, but I can’t evaluate it right now.”
Herwitt, however, said the chances are good that Congress will be able to pass ENDA this Congress.
“I think we’ve put to work the whole community to really educate our members, and obviously Barney and [Rep.] Tammy [Baldwin] and now [Rep. Jared] Polis have been having what arguably is the most important part of the education process, and that’s member-to-member conversations,” she said.
Merkley predicted that opponents of ENDA would challenge the bill’s gender identity provisions as it makes its way through the Senate.
“Given the past record in Capitol Hill conversation, I expect that that will be a point of contention,” he said. “It did not become a key point of discussion when I worked on these issues in Oregon, but I think given the history here, that will come up.”
Still, Merkley said there’s a “strong sense” among those supporting the legislation that “discrimination is simply wrong, and that gender identity discrimination is a key part of this area.”
“We shouldn’t be slicing and dicing different components of it,” he said.
Herwitt said she believes the bill’s gender identity provisions would remain intact as it makes its way through Congress.
“The members and the advocates are committed to moving this legislation when we have the votes to protect the full integrity of the legislation,” she said.
Merkley said the passage of hate crimes legislation as an amendment in the Senate “raises the possibility” of a similar path for ENDA, but he added that a decision on “what pathways might be feasible” wouldn’t be made until further discussion occurs.