Gay-rights groups push Obama for executive order on discrimination

Gay-rights advocates plan to push President Obama to go big on their agenda in his second term.

Buoyed by the approval of same-sex marriage in several states on Election Day, lobbyists for gay-rights groups plan to prod the president to sign an executive order that would ban discrimination by federal contractors against gay and transgendered people.

The White House shelved the executive order earlier this year, but it remains a top priority for gay-rights groups. They argue that if Obama signs the order it could encourage Capitol Hill to pass broader legislation that would extend a similar ban to employers.

Allison Herwitt, legislative director for the Human Rights Campaign, said gay-rights supporters want to see movement from the president soon.

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"The push is to have them do it sooner instead of later," Herwitt said. "I do think it helps pave the way for a fully inclusive [Employment Non-Discrimination Act]. ... It is the way that the government puts its imprimatur on what's important and makes a difference in people's lives. The president would be saying it's important not to discriminate."

If passed by Congress, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act would extend federal protections against discrimination in the workplace to gay and transgendered people. Lobbyists working on the bill admit it has a tough road to passage with Republicans still in control of the House.

Obama has earned praise from gay-rights advocates for repealing “Don’t ask, don’t tell” and for endorsing same-sex marriage. Further, his administration has said expressed support for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act in the past. An executive order could move much faster, though, because it would only require a stroke of the president’s pen.

“I think it's important for us to move forward and show some momentum that there's protections for LGBT workers. … This would be huge. You have to understand the enormity of the impact it would have for so many people in our community,” said Darlene Nipper, deputy executive director for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, about Obama signing such an executive order.

The Employment Non-Discrimination Act's main sponsor is Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who will not return next Congress because he is retiring. Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) will pick up the mantle and be the main sponsor of the bill next Congress, according to a Polis aide.

Gay-rights groups also plan to lobby for there to be more openly gay officials in the Obama administration.

On the state level, gay-rights groups are aiming to build on victories in Maine, Maryland and Washington, where ballot initiatives legalizing same-sex marriage were approved. In Minnesota, voters rejected an amendment to the state constitution that would have defined marriage as between a man and a woman.

With nine states and the District of Columbia having now legalized same-sex marriage, gay rights advocates believe they can build support in Congress by reminding lawmakers about the views of their constituents.

“Many of their constituents will start to bump up against [the Defense of Marriage Act]. That's the impact we will use when go back to those offices. That's different from [Election Day]. They are going to hear it from their constituents now,” said Jo Deutsch, federal director for Freedom to Marry.

The Defense of Marriage Act bans the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages, denying gay couples several protections granted to straight couples. Some courts have ruled the law unconstitutional, and the Supreme Court will decide later this month whether or not to review several cases challenging it.

Same-sex marriage could pop up in other debates next year, including the push for tax reform. Gay-rights lobbyists want parity between how straight couples’ and domestic partners’ health benefits are taxed.

“As Congress hopefully tackles tax reform next year, we are going to try to get our fix as part of the conversation and make it into the final bill,” Herwitt said.

Further, groups like OutServe-SLDN will be pushing the Defense Department to provide the same benefits to all spouses of military service members.

“OutServe-SLDN will be aggressively seeking action from the Pentagon to take steps without further delay to extend benefits and support to gay and lesbian military families under its current legal authority,” said Zeke Stokes, a spokesman for the group.

While election results on Tuesday were seen as a resounding victory for gay rights, there was a downside — several GOP candidates who have been supportive of gay rights were defeated.

Three of the five Republican co-sponsors of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act in the House will not return to Congress next year. Reps. Judy Biggert (R-Ill.) and Nan Hayworth (R-N.Y) lost their reelection bids, while Rep. Todd Platts (R-Pa.) is retiring.

American Unity PAC, a pro-GOP, pro-gay-rights super-PAC, saw six out of its eight endorsed candidates lose this election cycle after spending more than $2.2 million on online and television ads.

Jeff Cook, a senior adviser to American Unity political action committee, said the group is proud of its campaign spending and is here to stay.

“Over the next two years, American Unity is more committed now more than ever to help our party modernize so it can appeal to the broader cross-section of voters that we need to win elections in competitive districts in the midst of our country's new demographic reality,” Cook said.

Nevertheless, the election results have given new impetus to lobbyists to push to expand gay rights in Washington.

“It's so remarkable from the president being reelected and all of these successes in the states, that it really shows that the American people are with us. We are not going back now and we expect that the president and his administration will continue to move us forward,” Nipper said.