Obama to move on gay rights

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The White House is drafting an executive order that would ban federal contractors from discriminating against their employees on the basis of sexual orientation.

"Following on his pledge for this to be a year of action to expand opportunity for all Americans, the President has directed his staff to prepare for his signature an Executive Order that prohibits federal contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity," a White House official said Monday. 

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"The action would build upon existing protections, which generally prohibit federal contractors and subcontractors from discriminating in employment decisions on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin," the official continued. "This is consistent with the President’s views that all Americans, LGBT or not, should be treated with dignity and respect."

The official noted that President Obama had merely asked his staff to prepare the executive order, declining to give a timeline for his signature. That distinction seems intended to give Republicans in the House a chance to take legislative action before the president moves forward unilaterally.

Obama has for months resisted calls from gay rights groups to draft such an order, with White House aides saying the president wanted Congress to pass legislation extending antidiscrimination protections to all American workers. But after passing the Senate in November, legislation has seen little progress in the Republican-controlled House.

"While work remains to ensure that all Americans, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, are equal under the law, we look forward to continuing to make progress in the months and years ahead," the White House official said. 

Action in the House though seems unlikely. Top Republicans, including House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), have called the bill redundant and warned it would cost jobs by creating frivolous litigation. 

Earlier this year, Vice President Biden said there was "no downside" to such an executive action, although he emphasized the administration remained focused on passing broader legislation.

Following those comments, press secretary Jay Carney said there was "no doubt that the legislation would be a far greater accomplishment and more broadly applied. 

“That is why we continue to push the House to follow the Senate's lead and pass that," said Carney.

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), who sponsored the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) in the upper chamber, praised the White House decision and urged GOP lawmakers to act.

“With this announcement, the arc of history bends a little farther toward justice. Discrimination simply has no place in American workplaces. This executive order will allow millions more Americans to go to work empowered with the right to do their jobs free of harassment or discrimination,” he said in a statement.

“Most Americans don’t know that it’s still legal in many states to fire someone for their sexual orientation or gender identity. That’s because it not only defies common sense, it goes wholly against who we are as a nation,” Merkley added. “No more excuses. It’s way past time for Speaker Boehner to allow ENDA to have a vote in the House.”

DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) called the move a “significant step in our nation’s progress on civil rights” and noted that it came almost one year after the Supreme Court struck down key parts of the Defense of Marriage Act.

“Democrats in Congress remain steadfast in our commitment to passing the Employee Non-Discrimination Act into law that will permanently extend these protections to all Americans,” she added. “It’s time for Republicans to join us.”

Obama is slated to headline a Democratic National Committee LGBT event on Tuesday in New York.

This story was updated at 12:49 p.m.