View From the Hill: Legislatively Speaking

By Kerry Eleveld

Originally published on Advocate.com July 09 2009 11:00 PM ET

We got two reminders this week of why it's oh-so-important to capitalize on moving LGBT legislation before the 2010 midterms.

First, President Barack Obama's approval ratings took a hit in three separate polls. Gallup's daily tracking numbers dropped him to 56% approval -- his lowest to date -- with 36% of voters disapproving of his performance, a new high. Rasmussen Reports also recorded their worst numbers and, finally, Quinnipiac found that he dipped below 50% in Ohio this week.

While this is just one of many, many weeks to come in Obama's presidency, it's a reminder of the fundamental law of politics that what goes up must come down -- a new president's honeymoon period is inescapably ephemeral.

And then there was the 60th Democratic senator. While progressives were anxious to swear in Al Franken, this could very well end up being the curse of 2010. Say what you might about the party not marching in lock-step and no guarantees, etc., but in the eyes of the public, Democrats now own the government and have no real excuses for what they either do or don't do.

Liberals who don't see their green or gay or gutsy agenda enacted will blame the Dems even as Republicans try to bludgeon them with anything that's too progressive for moderate America.

Historically, the party that controls the executive branch almost always loses congressional seats in the midterms. My theory is, that backlash grew in size and scope as soon as Franken raised his right hand.

Indeed, House Minority Whip Eric Cantor was on NPR Friday morning charging, "This president and this Congress own the economy" and predicting great GOP gains, if not a "takeover," in 2010.

OK, enough doom and gloom. The counterbalance to that less-than-rosy scenario is that LGBT issues are starting to see some action on the Hill after successive months of complete stagnation.

Employment nondiscrimination has been introduced in the House and Rep. Barney Frank says it's on track for House passage this year. No Senate bill yet.

Hate-crimes legislation has passed through the House and a Senate Democratic aide tells me it is expected to be attached to the Senate's Department of Defense reauthorization bill next week.

The tactic of attaching hate crimes to DOD reauthorization went down in flames in 2007 after the amendment was eventually removed from the final bill once Senate leadership concluded the legislation would not pass with the hate crimes provision.

But several sources, including the aide, say the DOD bill is by far the best vehicle for hate crimes this year. While some activists would like to see it passed as a stand-alone bill, that's simply not the Senate way. "Do you have any idea how many amendments that would attract," the aide said, calling the approach "fatally flawed."

Assuming the Senate musters the votes to pass DOD reauthorization, the real question will be whether the bill stays intact when it has to be reconciled with the House's version of reauthorization.

And speaking of Defense, the Military Readiness Enhancement Act, which would repeal "don't ask, don't tell," finally got a boost this week when Rep. Patrick Murphy of Pennsylvania officially became the House lead and launched a national speaking tour in key congressional districts with the Human Rights Campaign.

Murphy, the first Iraq war vet elected to Congress, is wholeheartedly committed to repeal and has laser-beam focus. When I tried to ask him about stopping discharges through an executive order, he reminded me that he can't sign an executive order and added, "but what I can do is put a bill on the president's desk."

The Senate repeal bill is still MIA, but Majority Leader Harry Reid has said, among other things, that if the House moves on the bill, the Senate will too. Rep. Barney Frank a couple weeks ago reiterated his contention that a vote wouldn't be taken on MREA until next year, and Murphy said passing the bill would take "months and months of due diligence." Looks like next year's a good bet. But House Armed Services Committee chair Ike Skelton has agreed to hold full committee hearings this year, so as Murphy said, "the winds of change are in the air."

The Domestic Partner Benefits and Obligations Act, which would extend health and survivor benefits to same-sex partners of federal workers, had a hearing this week. This sleeper bill got a huge boost when President Obama endorsed it during the Oval Office signing ceremony (it didn't hurt that mainstream Americans kept wondering "which benefits" same-sex couples were getting from the presidential memo if health benefits weren't included). The buzz on the Hill is that there may be room in the House schedule to take a vote on DPBO as early as this fall, which would kick it over to the Senate.

And here's a little tidbit I ran across this week: A DOMA repeal bill is nearing introduction; it could even happen before the August recess, according to sources familiar with the discussions.

As usual, the devil's in the details, and that's what's stalling introduction.

"One approach would be simply to repeal section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, which would allow federal recognition of marriages," Rep. Tammy Baldwin told me outside the DPBO hearing.

"There's disagreement about what about states that have civil unions or domestic partnerships but not marriage. If you include federal recognition of those, does that dissipate the argument for marriage and that [there's] no substitute. That's a very lively discussion we're having," she said. "So things like that are impeding the immediate introduction of the bill."

If you want to brush up on the bill, I reported on it in more detail back in April. Baldwin confirmed that Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York will be the lead House sponsor and, while the Senate lead is still up in the air, expect senators Russ Feingold and Chuck Schumer to be in the mix. A final point of interest: One source said that the House version of the bill "could include repealing more than just section 3" of DOMA, but he said discussions were ongoing and declined to go into further detail.

Senator Schumer is also playing a central role in the immigration debate and said earlier this week that he will have a comprehensive immigration reform bill ready by Labor Day. "We are hoping and expecting that lesbian and gay families will be included in that bill," said Immigration Equality's Steve Ralls. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is apparently waiting to see how the Senate legislation plays out before introducing the House version.

Taken together, this full court press could amount to comprehensive LGBT reform. Now, let's see what materializes before the midterms.