Gay groups’ top priority crowded off schedule

While the Senate is expected to vote next week on ending the military’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, another top priority of the gay-rights movement is likely to fall by the wayside.

Gay-rights activists say they are resigned to the fact that the House will not vote before the midterm elections — and perhaps not this year — on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), a bill adding workplace protections for sexual orientation and gender identity.

With Democrats bracing for big GOP gains in November, the legislation could be dead for the foreseeable future if it isn’t passed this Congress.

“I am not too optimistic,” said Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality. “It was never a top priority [for Democratic leaders], and we ran out of time.”

Keisling blamed the media for elevating the issue of gays in the military over ENDA. She said she doesn’t question the importance of ending “Don’t ask” but noted “ENDA has always been the community’s No. 1 legislative priority.”

ENDA has been a cause for the gay community for years, but it has taken a backseat to the push to end the ban on gays serving openly in the military.

The House passed a measure to end the “Don’t ask” policy on a close vote in May. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Tuesday he expected to vote on the provision, which is part of the defense reauthorization bill, as early as next week.

“I think right now the big struggle for everybody is ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell,’ ” Keisling said.

 While advocates would celebrate a victory in ending the military ban, they are also pushing Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to keep a promise she made on ENDA.

 “Speaker Pelosi made a commitment to our community that this would come up for a vote during this session of Congress,” said Fred Sainz, chief spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign. “A commitment has been made, and we expect that commitment to be fulfilled.”

Advocates are turning their attention to the lame-duck session of Congress, when they have been told there is a chance ENDA could be brought to the floor.

“There’s only so much time in the calendar right now,” Sainz said.

Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) — the chief architect of ENDA — said he is working on bringing the bill up during the lame-duck session but did not know if it would happen. He placed part of the blame for ENDA’s delay on gay activists.

 “They haven’t been doing a good enough job of lobbying their members,” Frank said.

“People have demonstrations. They don’t lobby their members. I want all of the groups that I agree with to be like the NRA," Frank said.

Gay-rights advocates say there are enough votes in the House to pass ENDA, but Democratic leaders made a strategic decision in June to prioritize ending the military ban. As the backlog of legislation accumulated in the Senate and the political environment deteriorated for Democrats, the push for ENDA lost momentum.

The House in 2007 passed a version of ENDA that included protections for sexual orientation but not gender identity. That bill gained 35 Republican votes, but the addition of the protection for transgendered people has scared off some centrist Democrats and Republicans wary of wading into a sensitive social issue in an election year.

The Democratic whip’s office circulated an e-mail earlier this year asking members if they’d support a version of the non-discrimination act with the transgender protection. At the time, Frank said he was “optimistic” that the bill would garner the necessary support.

The bill with the transgender provision garnered 202 co-sponsors, leaving it just 16 votes short of the 218 needed to pass. The greater concern was beating back a Republican “motion to recommit” that supporters feared would add restrictions the gay community found offensive.

Pelosi told The Hill in June that she was hopeful the expanded ENDA could pass in 2010, though she stopped short of a firm commitment. She then suggested at a press conference that she wanted to finish the repeal of “Don’t ask” before moving on to ENDA.

“The LGBT community is just going to be tremendously disappointed. The community very much feels let down,” Keisling said.