After nearly a year without a vote in the U.S. House of Representatives, Colorado's Rep. Jared Polis just launched a new plan to force his colleagues to take a vote on the long-languishing Employment Non-Discrimination Act.
More than 100 members of the House have already signed onto a procedural move known as a discharge petition, which would force a vote on ENDA before the end of this congressional term, Polis, an out father and Democrat, tells The Advocate.
The pending legislation, which would make it illegal for employers to fire, decline to promote, or refuse to hire someone on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity, passed the U.S. Senate last November with sizable bipartisan support. But since then, Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner has repeatedly refused to bring the legislation to the House floor for a vote, despite a broad, bipartisan collection of 206 members of Congress who currently cosponsor the bill.
On Wednesday, Polis launched a procedural motion called a discharge petition, which seeks to override the Speaker's refusal to bring the bill to a vote by securing signatures from at least 218 members who demand that the legislation be brought to the floor.
A discharge petition, Polis explained in a phone call with The Advocate, allows members of Congress to "say they want to vote on something, and it's bottom-up, rather than top-down."
"So we're going around the speaker, since he has refused to allow a vote," continued Polis. "[We plan] to force a simple vote on employment nondiscrimination, to protect LGBT Americans from being fired just because of who they love or who they are."
Polis said he is "very confident" that if ENDA were brought to a vote, it would easily pass. If the discharge petition were successful -- meaning at least 218 representatives signed the petition -- ENDA would come to the House floor for a vote, and would need only simple majority approval to move one step closer to President Obama's desk.
While the primary intent of the discharge petition is to force members to take a public stand on a measure that a vast majority of Americans support -- and most believe is already law -- Polis also positioned the petition as a way to clean up the bill's existing religious exemptions, which many view as overly broad.
After the Supreme Court's decision in the Hobby Lobby case, which found that an employer can cite personal religious beliefs to deny specific health care options to employees, seven major LGBT organizations announced they were withdrawing support for ENDA, pointing to the bill's religious exemptions.
But Polis's discharge petition, he explained, would scale back the problematic exemption and bring it in line with existing federal legislation that balances religious freedom with basic civil rights around identities like race and gender.
"In the post-Hobby Lobby era, Americans are rightfully more concerned about whether an employer cites their own beliefs in deciding what benefits to offer their employees or, in this case, who to fire," Polis said. "So ... we mirror the same religious exemption language that exists for race and gender, and we apply that to sexual orientation and gender identity. So rather than have a different and larger carve-out, we have the same exemption that we have for race and gender."
Polis confirmed that a successful discharge petition would effectively amend the existing ENDA bill, bringing a version to the House floor that features religious exemptions on par with those recently included in President Obama's executive orders outlawing workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity within the federal government and for federal contractors.
"It's the new and improved ENDA," Polis said.
Asked about the specific timing of this discharge petition -- discussion of which has been percolating for months -- Polis said his motivation is twofold.
"We're going rapidly into an election period, and now is the best time for voters to hold their representatives accountable," Polis explained. "And particularly at the time when more and more Republicans are trying to downplay this equality issue -- or speak out of both sides of their mouth -- this will give voters the ability to see through that, and say 'Well, you say you support equality, but have you taken the next step and signed the discharge petition to prevent people from being fired just for being LGBT?'"
Filing a discharge petition in the lead-up to November's midterm election "also highlights the importance of this election for LGBT voters and our friends and families about what's at stake, and why it's absolutely critical to vote this November," Polis added.
Polis's secondary motive for introducing the discharge petition is somewhat more pragmatic.
"It's using the one procedural technique we have to try to force a vote on this before, in the first week of January, it expires, and we have to start all over again," said Polis.
Even if Polis and his allies in Congress are unsuccessful in securing the required 218 signatures to force a vote, Polis believes the scope of those who do sign the discharge petition will increase pressure on Speaker Boehner to bring ENDA to the floor.
"As we get closer to 218 [signers], it applies more and more pressure to Speaker Boehner to bring the bill to the floor," Polis explained.
The Human Rights Campaign, one of the last prominent LGBT groups to stand firm in its support for ENDA's current iteration, lauded Polis's petition.
"We appreciate the leadership of Leader Pelosi and Congressman Polis in seeking every possible avenue to advance ENDA in the House this year," said David Stacy, HRC's government affairs director, in a statement. "No American should be denied a job opportunity, fired, or discriminated against just because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. With an overwhelming two-thirds of American voters, including a strong majority of Republicans, supporting a federal law that protects LGBT people from workplace discrimination, this is clearly an issue lawmakers from both parties can support."