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ENDA and gay immigration rights bills reintroduced in U.S. Congress

ENDA and gay immigration rights bills reintroduced in U.S. Congress

U.S. Senator Jeff Merkely (D-Ore.) re-introduced the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) to the Senate on Wednesday, and U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) and U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) each re-introduced a bill Thursday to help bi-national LGBT couples.

These latest measures bring to 15 the number of pro-LGBT bills introduced to the House and Senate thus far in the 112th Congress. The number of bills hostile to LGBT civil rights now totals seven.

In announcing ENDA’s re-introduction at a press conference on Thursday, Merkley was joined by one of his three co-sponsors, Republican Senator Mark Kirk of Illinois. A press release from Merkley’s office indicated Senators Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) were also signed no a original co-sponsors.

The text of this year’s ENDA (S. 811) is the same as last year’s, according to Merkley spokeswoman Julie Edwards. Last year’s version of the bill in the Senate eventually accumulated 45 co-sponsors; in the House, it eventually collected 203 co-sponsors.

Although he announced the re-introduction of this year’s House version late last month, U.S. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) “dropped” the Employment Non-Discrimination Act into the wooden “hopper” next to the House Clerk’s desk on April 6, officially starting the measure on its journey through the 112th Congress.

Neither the House nor Senate version of ENDA is expected to travel far during the 2011-12 Congressional session.

That’s because Republicans control the House, and very few Republicans seem convinced that there is a need to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Without any real prospects of passing the House, Democrats in the Senate are unlikely to press for a vote there.

If there’s a silver lining to the way things stand for ENDA now, it’s that the LGBT community won’t be listening to every tick of the clock on this Congressional session, as it did in the last session, when there was some movement on the legislation.

Both the House and Senate ENDAs received committee hearings during the last session, but neither got a committee vote nor a chance to reach the floor, despite repeated assurances for months from Democratic leaders that votes were imminent. No one is making such promises this time around.

A Frank spokesman, Harry Gural, said Frank is “realistic” about ENDA’s chances in a Republican-controlled House.

“It’s probably not going to happen,” said Gural. But, he said Frank “is optimistic in the long run.”

“You don’t just say, ‘Republicans are in power so we’re not going to do anything’,” said Gural.

Supporters of the legislation say its re-introduction makes it easier for advocates to get the attention of legislators who need to be lobbied to support the bills.

In the House, the key lobby effort will likely have to focus on Republicans. Only three Republicans were among the 111 members of the House to join Frank as original co-sponsors of the legislation before it was filed — chief co-sponsor Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, Todd Platts of Pennsylvania, and Judy Biggert of Illinois.

Biggert represents somewhat of a victory as an original co-sponsor. Although she was an original co-sponsor last session, she was one of the first Republicans to back off the bill when discussion erupted — as if often does — over the “gender identity” language. Biggert had voted for a “sexual orientation only” version of ENDA in 2007 but said last April that she was undecided about the 111th Congressional version that included gender identity. She said she was concerned about how adding that language could affect schools. A spokesman for her office did not return a reporter’s call to explain why she’s back on as a co-sponsor now.

The bill (identified as H.R. 1397 in the House) is “exactly” the same as last Congressional session, and it has been referred to the usual committees — four in the House, including the Committee on the Judiciary and the Committee on Education and the Workforce.

Some news reports last week suggested that support for ENDA had dropped dramatically. But the bill had 117 original co-sponsors when it was first introduced to the 111th Congress, and 111 in the 112th. Presumably, Frank could have delayed the actual introduction of the bill to gain the additional six co-sponsors.

There appears to be relatively few changes in language this year to the immigration bills of Senator Leahy and Rep. Nadler.

Both versions of the Uniting American Families Act were reintroduced Thursday, April 14, seeking to allow LGBT American citizens the ability to sponsor their “permanent partners” or spouses for legal residency in the United States.

Currently, immigration law provides a relatively easy route for heterosexual married Americans to obtain a green card for their foreign spouses. But the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which prohibits federal recognition of marriage licenses to same-sex couples, prohibits immigration officials from using that same route for same-sex spouses.

Nadler held a press conference Thursday afternoon on Capitol Hill to announce the re-introduction. Joining him at the event were openly gay Reps. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.) and Jared Polis (D-Colo.), as well as Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) and Jackie Speier (D-Calif.). A spokesman said the bill has 98 original co-sponsors.

Leahy issued a statement on his website, noting that this is the fourth session of Congress to which he has introduced the bill. The statement also says he has 17 co-sponsors thus far, including California Senator Barbara Boxer (but not Dianne Feinstein), Illinois Senator Dick Durbin (but not Mark Kirk), Maryland Senator Benjamin Cardin (but not Barbara Mikulski), Massachusetts Senator John Kerry (but not Scott Brown). Neither of the senators from Virginia or Texas or Ohio were among the 17.

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