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View From Washington Universal Stagnation


The push for immigration reform began in earnest last week, with President Obama engaging immigration activists and key congressional leaders like senators Chuck Schumer and Lindsay Graham behind closed doors.

Schumer, a Democrat, and Graham, a Republican, delivered a three-page outline of the bipartisan bill they are assembling and that Schumer no doubt hopes to unveil before the immigration movement stages a massive march on Washington March 21 that is expected to draw close to 100,000 people or more.

But in echoes from legislative battles past, prior to meeting with the president, Graham told Politico, "At the end of the day, the president needs to step it up a little bit. One line in the State of the Union is not going to do it."

Sound familiar? Not only could this sentiment be directly applied to the battle to repeal "don't ask, don't tell," but it more or less sums up health care reform as well. Sure, the administration has been overt about making health legislation its signature item, but the president didn't actually commit the details of his own bill to paper until the end of last month. In other words, for the better part of a year, the White House effectively sidestepped calls from the Hill for more involvement in the effort.

Make no mistake, the administration has a huge stake in immigration reform. Not only did Obama promise to address it in his first year in office, but immigrants and their allies -- especially the Latino population -- played a critical role in electing Obama president and giving Democrats unprecedented majorities in Congress.

Nonetheless, even the immigration overhaul has become a victim of health reform and the Democrats' inability to put it across the finish line.

As one Washington insider and LGBT advocate said when assessing Democratic control of the Senate: "The lack of discipline has been particularly disappointing in the Senate. Republicans had 51 votes and governed as if they had 70. Democrats had 59-60 votes and governed as if they had 40."

To make matters worse, the White House softened its March 18 deadline for a health care vote last week, forcing the president to actually delay his trip to Indonesia by several days. It's not the first deadline to come and go, but it's yet another sign that the White House is still struggling to get control of this runaway train.

If you look at the greater landscape of centrist-to-progressive legislation, LGBT agenda items that activists are pushing for this year -- like the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, partner benefits for federal workers, and repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" -- have fallen into the same black hole that most everything else has.

A combination of the administration's passive approach to guiding the legislative process and health reform sucking up all the air in the room has left a trail of flailing legislative efforts in its wake.

As for the lack of movement on LGBT bills, the same Hill insider added, "It's more a problem of competence than political malice," a conclusion many progressive political operatives have been reaching.

But even though the administration isn't solely to blame for the inertia, what we do know is that an extra nudge from the White House can put pro-equality legislation on the front burner. It's no secret that the hate-crimes measure started to move in the Senate last year after President Obama placed a personal call to Majority Leader Harry Reid.

And certainly the State of the Union mention put some wheels on a stalled "don't ask, don't tell" repeal effort.

But just as the White House has pushed other legislation into the forefront only to back away and watch the congressional fireworks from afar, so it seems to be with ending the military's gay ban.

As Rep. Barney Frank told me Friday, "I'm disappointed with the administration talking about delaying legislation for a year. But I'm working with Patrick Murphy [the lead sponsor of the House repeal bill] on it and I'm hoping we can push ahead."

Like many pro-repeal advocates, Frank has consistently pinpointed the National Defense Authorization Act as "the only vehicle" for overturning the ban legislatively. When I noted that the White House has failed to designate the defense authorization bill over a stand-alone bill as its preferred method for repealing the policy, Frank responded, "That's because they don't want it done this year, not because they want it done separately." (UPDATE: Frank revised this quote Monday, urging the White House to "make clear that it supports legislative action this year.")

If Frank is correct, that would help clarify two things: (1) why administration officials declined to comment on the introduction of Sen. Joseph Lieberman's new repeal bill -- because they actually prefer the defense authorization act over a stand-alone bill; (2) why they haven't advocated for a repeal measure to be included in this year's authorization act -- because they would prefer the issue recede into the shadows until next year.

Of course, LGBT people have a dog in the hunt on immigration issues too. Not only are there thousands of undocumented LGBT people who could benefit from a path to legalization, but the potential inclusion of the Uniting American Families Act in comprehensive immigration reform would allow gay citizens and green card holders to sponsor their same-sex partners.

Whether UAFA is included in the Senate's immigration bill remains to be seen, but even if it were, that's no silver bullet. Even Obama declined to commit to passing immigration legislation this year.

That led immigration activist Prerna Lal, who is both undocumented and part of the LGBT population, to conclude that counting on the White House for greater immigration reform is a misguided enterprise.

"What we should really do is start a national grassroots movement around UAFA," she said. "We should really focus on passing UAFA as standalone bill or repealing [the Defense of Marriage Act]."

I'll have more to come on immigration this week.

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