Gay rights advocates hailed a Senate panel's approval Wednesday of the Employee Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which would bar workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. But does the fact that the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions approved it with three Republican aye votes mean the politics have suddenly changed on this bill, which has been under consideration for nearly two decades?
Yes, they have. But not enough to actually get the measure passed into law.
The fact that GOP Sens. Mark Kirk (Ill.), Orrin Hatch (Utah) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) all voted in favor of the measure--and that one of its opponents, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), spoke about transgender Americans in terms that the Human Rights Campaign spokesman Michael Cole-Schwartz described as "unnecessarily gracious for someone who doesn’t support the bill" gives a sense of how much Republicans have shifted on this issue.
Tina Fetner, a sociology professor at McMaster University, said it shows "the disentanglement of the Republican Party from very strict anti-gay positions" it held in the 1980s and 1990s. "The fact that some Republican senators are voting for ENDA might mark a big shift from moving away from a strongly anti-gay platform."
Conservative groups such as the Family Research Council and the Traditional Values Coalition decried the vote Wednesday, arguing it places an unfair burden on employers, could lead to costly lawsuits and violates individuals' freedom of speech, religion and association.
In a statement, Family Research Council president Tony Perkins questioned why Senate Democrats would be "pushing legislation that mandates special rights based on sexual preferences."
For the most part, conservatives have focused their attacks on the measure's gender identity protections. Protections for transgender individuals were first added in 2007; that year the House passed a bill that only applied to Americans on the basis of sexual orientation. The Senate failed to pass a similar bill by a single vote in 1996, and neither chamber has ever held a floor vote on a measure including both sexual orientation and gender identity safeguards.
In an interview Wednesday Traditional Values Coalition president Andrea Lafferty suggested Democrats themselves were worried about pushing protections for transgendered individuals.
Within the gay movement, Lafferty argued, transgender people "are kind of like the crazy aunt at Thanksgiving. They put up with the crazy aunt at Thanksgiving, but they don’t want to be seen with her in public."
African-Americans, she added, would be particularly offended to see civil rights protections being extended to transgender individuals.
But publicly, both Democrats and establishment civil rights groups such as the NAACP have embraced the gender identity portions of the bill. White House press secretary Jay Carney issued a statement after the vote saying, "The President has long supported an inclusive ENDA, which would enshrine into law strong, lasting and comprehensive protections against employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity," adding the White House continues "to urge the House to move forward on this bill that upholds America’s core values of fairness and equality.:
House action, however, appears unlikely. When asked about the subject, a House leadership aide who asked not to be identified because the issue has not come up yet, said, "Our committees will review any legislation when and if the full Senate passes it."
Even Cole-Schwartz acknowledges that the stand-alone bill faces "an uphill climb," and that proponents' best chance is to attach it to another measure in the Senate to force a negotiation with the House on the issue.
"The politics, I think have certainly changed around it," he said, "but not completely."
Ruth Tam contributed to this report.