Thursday, October 25, 2007

House delays vote on ENDA

Southern Voice Online

House leaders delay ENDA voteBush advisers recommend veto of billBy LOU CHIBBARO JR. Oct 23, 3:11 PM
Democratic leaders announced they have decided to postpone a vote in the House of Representatives this week on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, or ENDA.
The announcement came several hours after the White House issued a statement saying that senor advisers have recommended that President Bush veto the gay rights measure if Congress were to pass it.
ENDA supporters were quick to say the postponement had nothing to do with the White House veto threat, but reports surfaced giving separate reasons why House Democratic leaders chose to put off a vote on the bill for at least one week.
Drew Hammill, press secretary for Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), issued a statement saying House Democratic leaders were working to “develop an accurate count” of the number of House members willing to vote for an amendment that would restore transgender protections to ENDA.
“We do not anticipate that this process can be completed this week,” Hammill said in his statement.
Hammill was referring to a decision by gay Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc), made with Pelosi’s consent, to introduce an amendment restoring a trans inclusive provision to the bill that House Democratic leaders took out. The leadership said it chose to move ahead with a gay-only version of the bill after it determined there were not enough votes to pass a trans inclusive bill.
Democratic strategists have said voting on the trans provision separately in the form of an amendment would allow supporters to move ahead with a gay-only bill if the Baldwin amendment is defeated.
Other reports surfaced indicating Pelosi postponed a vote on ENDA to clear the House agenda this week for an immediate vote on a new version of legislation to expand the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, known as SCHIP. President Bush vetoed the SCHIP bill earlier this month and supporters fell short of lining up enough votes to override the president’s veto.
“We’re hearing they plan to bring up SCHIP this week and this will displace ENDA and other bills,” said one source familiar with ENDA, who asked not to be identified.
Hammill could not be immediately reached for comment on whether House leaders chose to place SCHIP on the House agenda ahead of ENDA.
If Congress passes ENDA, Bush’s senior advisers would recommend that he veto the bill, according to the statement issued today by the White House.
The one-page statement, among other things, says provisions in ENDA “purport to give federal statutory significance to same-sex marriage rights under state law,” a development, according to the White House, that would conflict with the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act.
The statement represents the first time the White House has released an official position on the gay rights measure, which calls for banning employment discrimination based on sexual orientation.
The bill was scheduled to come up for a vote in the House this week before House Democratic leaders postponed the vote.
Supporters of the bill have said its marriage-related provision is limited to banning employment discrimination based on marital status in states where same-sex couples cannot legally marry. Under the bill’s marriage provision, employers could not require that a person be married or eligible to marry as a condition of employment except in Massachusetts, where same-sex couples can legally marry.
ENDA’s marriage-related provision has mostly been overshadowed by a controversy within the gay and transgender community over whether the bill should include protection for transgender persons. House Democratic leaders withdrew an earlier version of the bill that included trans protections after determining there were not enough votes to pass it.
A coalition of more than 300 gay and transgender groups on the national, state and local levels have called on Congress not to pass the current version, H.R. 3685, saying lawmakers should wait until enough support could be found to back transgender protection before bringing it up for a vote.
Pelosi last week gave her consent to a request by Baldwin to introduce an amendment on the House floor to restore trans protections to the bill. The Baldwin amendment would open the way for an unprecedented, up or down vote on transgender rights in the U.S. Congress.
The White House statement makes no mention of the transgender issue.
“The bill raises concerns on constitutional and policy grounds, and if H.R. 3685 were presented to the president, his senior advisers would recommend that he veto the bill,” the statement says.
The statement is considered by White House observers to be less forceful and definitive than other veto threats, in which the White House has said the president had already decided to veto a particular bill.
Most gay activists and supporters of ENDA on Capitol Hill have said they expected the president to veto ENDA regardless of whether it included transgender protections.
“H.R. 3685 is inconsistent with the right to the free exercise of religion as codified by Congress in the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA),” the White House statement on ENDA says.
It notes that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act bars the federal government from “substantially burdening the free exercise of religion except for compelling reasons” and only in the “least restrictive” means possible.
“H.R. 3685 does not meet this standard,” the statement says. “For instance, schools that are owned by or directed toward a particular religion are exempted by the bill;” the statement says, “but those that emphasize religious principles broadly will find their religious liberties burdened by H.R. 3685,” the statement says.
The statement says ENDA’s authorization of federal civil damages against states or state entities over employment discrimination “may violate states’ immunity under the 11th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.”
Similar to criticism raised by opponents in Congress, the White House statement says language in the bill barring employment discrimination based on someone’s “perceived” sexual orientation is “imprecise” and would “encourage burdensome litigation.”
The White House statement says ENDA’s marriage-related provision would conflict with the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, which defines marriage as a union only between one man and one woman under federal law.
“The administration strongly opposes any attempt to weaken this law, which is vital to defending the sanctity of marriage,” the statement says.
Supporters have said many state and local laws ban discrimination based on marital status and that the ENDA provision would not conflict with DOMA.

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