Senate passes historic ban against gay discrimination

Sen. Susan Collins (AP/Charles Dharapak)
Sen. Susan Collins (AP/Charles Dharapak)

The Democratic-led Senate, reflecting a major shift in the past decade in public support for gay rights, passed a bipartisan bill on Thursday to outlaw discrimination against gay workers, but the measure faces an uphill struggle in the Republican-led House of Representatives.

The bill cleared the Senate 64-32, with 10 Republicans joining 52 Democrats and two independents in voting “yes.”

The Employment Non-Discrimination Act of 2013 has become the latest battleground in an ideological fight within the Republican Party. An increasing number of Republicans support gay rights, but conservative groups threaten to challenge many of those who support the White House-backed bill.

Critics complain that the legislation represents an warranted federal intrusion in the workplace that would force employers to violate religious beliefs in deciding whom to hire.

Backers say legislation would protect people to be able to love whom they choose without the fear of losing their job.

Unlike a decade ago, when gay rights was a “wedge-issue” used to rally conservative voters, most Americans, including most Republicans, now support gay rights, polls show.

Senate passage of the non-discrimination bill came 19 years after such legislation was first introduced in Congress.

“This is a historic victory and shows that the country is moving forward,” said Assistant Senate Democratic Leader Dick Durbin of Illinois.

Said Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine, “All Americans have the right to pursue the American dream.”

But House Speaker John Boehner, the top Republican in Congress, has declared his opposition, expressing fear the measure would trigger lawsuits that would hurt businesses and cost jobs.

Backers of the legislation reject concerns about lawsuits, noting that it has not been a problem for states that have adopted similar laws in recent years.

The Senate bill would ban workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Existing federal law already prohibits discrimination based on race, religion, gender, national origin, age, and disability.

As of April, 88 percent of Fortune 500 companies already had non-discrimination policies for sexual orientation, and 57 percent had such policies for gender identity, according to the Human Rights Campaign, the largest civil rights organization for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans.

‘GENERATIONAL THING’

At this point, there are no plans to bring the Senate bill up for a House vote, but Republican leaders will face pressure to do so, including from members of their own party.

A number of Republican strategists are convinced that their party must embrace gay rights for its own political good.

“It’s largely a generational thing,” said one party strategist. “Younger Republicans see no reason to discriminate against gays. They have friends who are gay.”

Regardless, this strategist, asking not to be identified by name, said he expects Boehner to stand firm against the bill, reflecting the sentiment of older fellow House conservatives.

“Eventually the bill will pass the House. But not this year,” the strategist said.

The Human Rights Campaign is part of a coalition seeking passage. Others include Project Right Side, a gay rights group founded by Ken Mehlman, a former chairman of the Republican Party, and TargetPoint Consulting, a Republican polling firm.

Alex Lundry, TargetPoint’s chief data scientist, said over the past 10 years support for gay rights has risen in every demographic group.

“Americans are ready for this to happen,” Lundry said.

Fred Sainz, an HRC vice president, said his group helped win over eight senators, Democrats and Republicans, with campaigns in seven states, and now will focus on House members.

“It’s our job to make it happen,” Sainz said.

HRC President Chad Griffin, on a visit to the Capitol for the Senate vote, tweeted: “Note to Speaker Boehner: Turn on C-Span 2 (the TV station that covers the Senate). This is what democracy looks like.”

It is unclear how the battle will unfold in the 435-member House. A total of 193 House members, including five Republicans, have signed onto the legislation. Twenty-five more are needed to reach 218, the simple majority required for passage.

Backers may try to force a vote by signing a petition or by offering the bill as an amendment to must-pass legislation, such as a defense spending bill.

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Copyright  © 2013 Capitol Hill Blue

Copyright  © 2013 Thomson Reuters. All rights reserved.

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Obama calls meeting at White House as talks continue on the Hill

President Barack Obama: Another meeting, another try. (AP/Charles Dharapak)
President Barack Obama: Another meeting, another try. (AP/Charles Dharapak)

President Barack Obama called a mid-afternoon meeting of Congressional leaders at the White House Monday.

The call to the meeting came while the Senate’s leaders from both the Republican and Democratic parties met privately at the Capitol for the first time since Saturday in hopes of finding a way to solve the debt and budget crisis that threatens to send the American government into default for the first time in history.

The face-to-face meeting between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell came after a a Sunday phone call failed to bring an agreement on a deal to raise the government’s borrowing authority on a debt deal.

The current debt limit of $16.7 trillion will be met Thursday and leave the government without necessary funds to meet its obligations unless both sides agree to an increase before then.

Other Senators, part of a group led by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) met for two hours Monday morning in hopes of finding a solution to the deadlock.

“We’re making very good progress, but there’s still many details to be worked out,” Collins said to reporters before the meeting.  “We don’t a finished, agreed-upon product yet but I think we had an excellent meeting.”

Collins said the group will meet again later on Monday.

Economists warn financial disaster is looming over the unprecedented government default.  The partial government shutdown entered its third week Monday with 350,000 government workers on unpaid leave and another 500,000 working without pay.  The Stock Market opened with modest losses Monday, but bond markets are closed for the Columbus Day holiday.

The government shutdowns have halted IRS processing of tax returns and other functions of the government functions.  Even though Social Security and other benefit payments continue, they could stop under a government default if the debt limit is not raised.

Reid and McDonnell remain deadlocked over automatic, across the board spending cuts under budget sequestration which went into effect earlier this year.  Republicans want the cuts to continue at 2011 funding levels.  Democrats want an increase.

Reid said he is “optimistic about the prospects for a positive conclusion to the issues before the country today.”

McConnell ways a solution is “readily available” and he backs the efforts of the bipartisan group led by Senator Collins.

“It’s time for Democratic leaders to take ‘yes’ for an answer,” McConnell said in a statement released by his office.

Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia said he is worried about the “skittish” markets, where he added that investors are worried about the prospect of a debt default.

But, he said, “this hasn’t put us on suicide watch yet.”

“The leaders have to come together,” Manchin added.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina worries that Republicans will lose the most if a deal is not reached.

“We’re in a free-fall as Republicans,” Graham said Monday, “but Democrats are not far behind us.”

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Copyright  © 2013 Capitol Hill Blue

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Senators hope their leaders can succeed where others have failed

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.  (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Senators put faith in party leaders Sunday to devise a plan that would reopen the government and steer clear of a potential default this week, saying it’s unthinkable that political obstinacy would prevent the United States from paying its bills.

With House leaders sidelined, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., have taken the lead on discussions in the fiscal crisis. That raised the level of optimism among some senators that a deal could be reached even as Reid has said there was a “long ways to go” and few details on the leaders’ talks have emerged.

“It’s a breakthrough. Hard to imagine, but it’s a breakthrough,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, the No. 2. Senate Democratic leader, on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, predicted a short-term solution could be reached. “We will figure it out,” Portman said.

Though the Senate was leading the search for a deal, the House and its fractious Republicans remained a possible headache in the coming week.

“I think at this point we’ve got to figure out a way to get something out of the Senate that we think is close enough for the House to accept,” Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said on “Fox News Sunday.”

Sunday marked the 13th day of a federal shutdown that has continued to idle 350,000 government workers, left hundreds of thousands of others working without pay and curtailed everything from veterans’ services to environmental inspections. Last week, the effects of the shutdown reached businesses, such as concessions and hotels near federal parks, that depend on government programs.

More ominously, Thursday’s deadline to raise debt ceiling drew another day closer, the day the Obama administration has warned the U.S. will deplete its borrowing authority and risk an unprecedented federal default. Economists say that could send shockwaves throughout the U.S. and beyond.

The pressure was on both parties but seemed mostly on Republicans, who polls show are bearing the brunt of voters’ wrath over the twin standoffs. And though the financial markets rebounded strongly late last week on word of movement in the talks, lawmakers of both parties were warily awaiting their reopening this week to another impasse.

Republicans are demanding spending cuts and deficit reduction in exchange for reopening the government and extending its borrowing authority. President Barack Obama and other Democrats say they want both measures pushed through Congress without condition and would agree to deficit reduction talks afterward.

Out of play, for now, was the Republican-led House, where Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, told GOP lawmakers early Saturday that his talks with the president had ground to a halt.

Also sidelined, at least for now, was a plan forged by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and a bipartisan coalition to briefly fund the government and extend the $16.7 trillion debt limit, in exchange for steps like temporarily delaying the medical device tax that helps fund the health care law.

Democrats said Collins’ plan curbed spending too tightly, and Reid announced Saturday it was going nowhere.

Collins said Sunday that both Democrats and Republicans continue to offer ideas and say they want to be part of the group working to reopen the government and address the debt ceiling before Thursday’s deadline.

“We’re going to keep working, offering our suggestions to the leadership on both sides of the aisle in an attempt to be constructive and bring this impasse to an end. Surely we owe that to the American people,” Collins said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said she sees the Collins plan and the fact that the Senate leaders are talking as a positive going forward.

“We need that right now,” she said, adding that while Reid wouldn’t accept everything in the Collins plan, “he knows there are some positive things in that plan,” such as opening the government in a “smart time frame” not defaulting on debt and doing something in the long term on the budget.

Senate Republicans dealt Democrats an expected setback on Saturday by derailing a Democratic measure extending the debt limit through 2014 without any conditions. The vote was 53-45 to start debating the Democratic measure — seven short of the 60 votes needed to overcome GOP obstruction tactics.

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Associated Press writers David Espo, Kimberly Hefling and Michele Salcedo contributed to this report.
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Copyright  © 2013 Capitol Hill Blue

Copyright  © 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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