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March 27, 2015

Posts in "Civil Rights"

February 24, 2015

Oscar-Winning Portrayals About Legislative Impasse

Common and John Legend (Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Common and John Legend. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

There’s always at least of whiff of politics at the Oscars, but the speeches this year touched on as many different hot-button issues in Congress as ever.

Almost all the appeals for action were jabs from the left, readily predictable given the homogeneity of the movie industry’s ideology. So, almost all the passionate provocateurs are bound to be disappointed with what they hear out of the Capitol — at least between now and the 89th annual Academy Awards in 2017. Full story

February 23, 2015

Why a Fired Fire Chief Got on Capitol Hill’s Radar

Loudermilk, seen here with his family during his January mock-swearing in, is defending a fired fire chief. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Loudermilk, seen here with his family during his January mock-swearing in, is defending a fired fire chief. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The firing of Atlanta’s fire chief has already become a flashpoint in the debate over how to balance the religious beliefs of public officials against the civil rights of their constituents. Now the argument has spread to the Capitol — prompting questions about proper congressional roles in local controversies, especially when statewide electoral and legislative consequences lie just below the surface.

Chief Kelvin Cochran was dismissed six weeks ago, after a city investigation into a self-published book laying out his evangelical Christian religious beliefs. Its most incendiary passage described being gay or lesbian as a “sexual perversion” comparable to pedophilia or bestiality and labeled homosexual acts as “vile, vulgar and inappropriate.” Full story

February 18, 2015

Prayer in Congress: Not Just for House and Senate

Protesters gather outside the Supreme Court during arguments over prayer at public meetings and the separation of church and state in November 2013. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Protesters at the Supreme Court during arguments over prayer at public meetings and the separation of church and state in November 2013. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Taxpayer dollars have been used to pay chaplains of the House and Senate since the spring of 1789, when the first of 106 different ordained Christian ministers were elected to those jobs.

Only one of them, however, served as a member of Congress before returning as a man of the cloth: Oliver Cromwell Comstock, who spent three terms as a congressman from upstate New York before becoming a Baptist pastor and returning to the House as chaplain for eight months in 1837.

Now that 19th century politician-preacher has found something akin to a 21st century successor in the form of K. Michael Conaway, a six-term Baptist Republican from Midland, Texas, and the new chairman this year of the House Agriculture Committee. Full story

February 11, 2015

Court, Not Congress Could Mark Civil Rights Landmark

Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., was at the Supreme Court when it announced its landmark gay marriage decision in 2013. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., rallied with activists at the Supreme Court when it announced its landmark gay marriage decision in 2013. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

If you believe the two most conservative justices, then the Supreme Court can nearly be counted on to declare that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to get married. And if their expectation proves true, that decision may well go down as the most significant nationwide expansion of civil rights where Congress was on the sidelines.

One of the most rapid evolutions in the history of American moral values is potentially just 20 weeks from its breakthrough moment. The court is on course to decide before adjourning in June whether states may ban same-sex unions — astonishingly, fewer than five years after the very first national poll to find a majority supporting a universal right to marry. Full story

January 7, 2015

Voting Rights: One Way the GOP Might Reverse What Scalise Scandal Made Worse

Could Scalise shepherd a rewrite of the Voting Rights Act? (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Could Scalise shepherd a rewrite of the Voting Rights Act? (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

With the House once again preoccupied by Speaker John A. Boehner’s future, the snowy hoopla of opening day looks to have been the final event that sealed Steve Scalise’s fate: He is going to survive as majority whip for the indefinite future.

Now the question becomes what alternate moves, if any, the Louisianan and his GOP colleagues make in hopes of improving their lousy standing with African-Americans.

Full story

October 1, 2014

A Senator to Replace Holder?

Klobuchar is one of a trio of senators being mentioned as possible attorney general candidates. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Klobuchar has been mentioned as a possible attorney general pick. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The latest round of Cabinet handicapping is well underway, a welter of uninformed speculation (mixed with some White House trial balloons) about who might be nominated as attorney general. And the names of three Democratic senators keep getting bandied about — although they’ve all, with varying degrees of intensity, denied interest in the appointment.

From President Barack Obama’s perspective, it would arguably make sense for him, in the short term, to return to the congressional well for one of the final topflight, polarizing positions he’ll ever get the opportunity to fill. But the long-term downsides appear far greater — not only for his own legacy, but for the already wobbly balance of power at the Capitol.

Besides, taking the job at this time doesn’t look like a smart career move for any of the Senate trio meriting recent mention: Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut. Full story

April 21, 2014

President Pressured to Use Pen for LGBT Workers

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

It could be dubbed the federal contractor trifecta.

Employees at businesses that do a lot of work for the government began this election year hoping to benefit in three distinct ways from President Barack Obama’s vow to act on his own whenever Congress deadlocked on his legislative priorities.

Two of those expectations have now been met. In January he ordered contractors to start paying their blue-collar laborers at least $10.10 an hour, realizing his proposal to raise the $7.25 federal minimum wage to that amount was doomed. And this month he declared that workers on federal contracts must be free to discuss their salaries, so women may more easily expose pay inequities at those companies while legislation that could close the wage gender gap nationwide languishes.

Now, the pressure will only intensify for Obama to make good in the third area. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees being paid under federal contracts want to benefit from the same sort of executive order that is aiding female and low-wage workers. And their advocacy groups, along with allies on the Hill, are signaling they’re tired of waiting for the president to apply his “we can’t wait” mantra to their cause.

The issue is job bias against LGBT people. While steady advances continue in the states for same-sex marriage — still the paramount political cause of the gay community — outlawing employment discrimination has become the principal gay rights cause in Washington, in part because it’s unambiguously subject to federal regulation or legislation in a way that marriage equality is not.

Only 21 states have made it illegal to fire or harass someone based on sexual orientation, or to deny a raise or refuse to hire on that same basis. More than 11 million people work in the remaining 29 states for companies without policies protecting workplace civil rights for gay people, according to a recent study by UCLA Law School.

Last November, 10 Republicans joined 54 Democrats in the Senate to pass legislation that would prohibit gay job bias nationwide at businesses with more than 15 workers, with some exceptions for religious organizations. But House Republicans have no interest in putting the bill on the floor. (Known as the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, or ENDA, it’s currently 16 votes shy of guaranteed passage, in any event.)

In short, the gay rights community sees their “ask” as a clear parallel to the minimum wage and pay parity issues. They argue Congress isn’t ready to change the situation nationally, so Obama should at least start paving the way by helping out people working for or seeking employment from government contractors. Full story

November 19, 2013

Sleeper Alert: Disabilities Treaty May Rise Anew in the Senate

Senators and disabled activists held a press conference in December 2012 to urge passage of a U.N. treaty on people with disabilities. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Senators and disabled activists held a news conference in December 2012 to urge passage of a U.N. treaty on people with disabilities. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

His approval rating may have sunk to a new low, right there with the portion of cooperative spirit left in the Republican ranks, but President Barack Obama is gambling that he can somehow reverse a searing, if low-profile, loss from a year ago on a proposal with global implications and domestic political import.

The campaign will formally be joined Thursday morning, when Secretary of State John Kerry will come to Capitol Hill to press anew for Senate ratification of a treaty known as the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

The pact, to which 138 other countries have committed, is written with the principal goal of extending around the word a system of accommodations very similar to what’s spelled out for this country in the Americans with Disabilities Act. That law, passed 23 years ago with overwhelming majorities of Republicans and Democrats alike, stands as the most recent important new civil rights law enacted with genuinely expansive bipartisan backing, and public support for it remains strong.

Obama is betting he can resurrect just enough of that that cross-party spirit to score an upset victory for the treaty on his second attempt. His team has not yet revealed what tactics he has up his sleeve to get there, but for two reasons it’s understandable why he’s trying. Full story

November 7, 2013

Democrats Unveil Post-ENDA Game Plan

Senate Democrats, confident of passing legislation banning job discrimination against gay people, are readying their next assertive moves on three other issues important to their base:

  • Abortion rights
  • Minimum wage
  • Federal judiciary

The goal is to divert as much attention as possible away from the problem-plagued Obamacare rollout at this formative stage of the 2104 campaign. Full story

November 4, 2013

Gay Civil Rights Debate Moves to Still-Recalcitrant House

Monday evening’s preliminary test vote on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act essentially guarantees that the most consequential civil rights bill of the year will pass the Senate with genuinely bipartisan support, very likely by the end of the week.

And so, even before the crucial 60th public supporter was locked down (from Republican Dean Heller of Nevada), proponents and opponents were decamping to the other side of the Capitol, believing a climactic debate in the House during the coming months may be moving toward inevitability.

Advocates of the bill — which would outlaw workplace discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people — are working to create something of a self-fulfilling prophecy: The metaphoric arc of history is bending so quickly toward this measure of justice that, by the time midterm Election Day arrives in one year, Republicans in close races will appear dangerously out of touch unless they have become part of turning ENDA into law.

Critics say they’re confident in their view of a very different political dynamic: Voters will remain much more worried about boosting the economy than about creating more costly, religious-freedom-impinging, and maybe even unnecessary, business regulations for the benefit of narrow and out-of-the-mainstream interests.

The House’s top two leaders have encapsulated those sentiments in recent days.

Speaker John A. Boehner “believes this legislation will increase frivolous litigation and cost American jobs,” his spokesman Michael Steele said Monday, reiterating the top Republican’s longstanding plans to keep the bill bottled up.

Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said she believed she could pressure the GOP hierarchy into applying a lesson from the expansion of the Violence Against Women Act, which Boehner ushered through the House this winter without a majority of his majority, concluding that doing otherwise would worsen the GOP’s potentially debilitating gender gap.

“We made it too hot to handle in the public. It had to come to the floor,” the California Democrat said of her party’s tactics. “We would hope that once burned, twice learned.”

Women are a majority of the electorate, and Democrats won their 2012 vote by 9 points. The 5 percent who told the exit pollsters they were gay, lesbian or bisexual preferred the Democrats by 54 points. Those are just two of the numbers that have prompted so much strategic soul-searching about softening the party’s image on social issues.

Proponents of ENDA will be concentrating their efforts on rounding up House co-sponsors, hoping momentum from the growing roster of supporters in the Senate (on top of significantly expanded congressional support for gay marriage in the past year) can create an absolute majority of committed “yes” votes in the House.

All but a dozen Democrats have signed on, and perhaps half of the holdouts may yet do so. At least four look destined to vote “no” because they cited the GOP arguments in opposing the somewhat narrower version of ENDA the House passed in 2007. They are John Barrow of Georgia, Mike McIntyre of North Carolina and Nick J. Rahall II of West Virginia — all looking at tight races in swing districts in 2014 — plus Daniel Lipinski of Illinois.

That breadth of Democratic support would still require advocates to find about two dozen Republican votes, or about 10 percent of members. That’s a tall order in a GOP conference where many more members are more concerned about primary challenges from their right than about winning general elections in the center. And Boehner maintains he won’t call up the bill, even if it secures enough commitments to pass.

That situation is why one of the tactics under increased discussion would be replicating what happened in 2010 with the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” restrictions on gays in the military: Working to attach ENDA to a must-pass bill with considerable Republican support, such as the annual defense authorization measure, and gambling that enough conservatives would rather swallow the gay rights language than imperil the Pentagon budget.

Only five Republicans are co-sponsoring the stand-alone bill so far. And only one of those is in a competitive race where social policy liberalism looks to work to his benefit: Chris Gibson, who’s running for a third term in a Hudson Valley and Catskill Mountains district of New York. President Barack Obama carried that district by 6 points. Gibson is running against Democrat Sean Eldridge, who is married to Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes and has spent much of his career as an advocate for marriage equality.

The other four GOP backers are centrist Jon Runyan of central New Jersey, libertarian-tinged Richard Hanna of upstate New York and two of the veteran moderates who voted for the narrower bill six years ago: Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida and Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania.

Ten other Republicans remain from that group, including Budget chairman and 2008 vice presidential nominee Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Greg Walden of Oregon, House Administration Chairwoman Candice S. Miller of Michigan, incoming Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen of New Jersey, and Boehner confidant Pat Tiberi of Ohio.

All of them have signaled opposition to this year’s iteration because it would extend federal job bias protections to transgender people, whom the 2007 bill did not mention in a calculated effort by its sponsors to boost the GOP vote total. While 35 Republicans voted “yes,” only a handful of the 25 Democrats who voted “no” said they did so to protest the bill’s lack of inclusiveness.

Among those Democrats was Maine’s Michael H. Michaud, who revealed he is gay Monday in an op-ed published by two of the state’s biggest newspapers — a response, he said, to the “whisper campaigns, insinuations and push-polls” of his opponents in next year’s race for governor.

Dropping the transgender provision now doesn’t look to be on the table, for several reasons: A bill including that clause is going to get decent GOP support in the Senate. Taking the language out won’t unlock a surge of GOP support in the House, because most of those members still view the bill as an affront to family values and free enterprise.

What’s more, the gay rights community now looks united behind a strategy of waiting for the comprehensive victory it is confident will come before too long.

October 27, 2013

Gay Civil Rights Bill, a Test for the GOP, Moves to Hill Forefront

(Kena Betancur/Getty Images)

Booker’s entry into the Senate could provide an essential vote to advance the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. (Kena Betancur/Getty Images)

The Senate’s partisan balance will move a tick to the left Thursday, when Cory Booker takes his seat as the 55th member of the Democratic caucus. And the New Jersey newcomer looks increasingly likely to make a bit of history befitting his national profile only a few days later, by providing an essential vote to advance the most important civil rights bill of the decade.

Legislation that would prohibit workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity is on the cusp of securing a filibuster-crushing supermajority of 60 senators — close enough that proponents are ready to call the question.

Four Republicans have announced their support for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, along with 51 of the current Democrats. Another sure “yes” vote would come from Booker, who as mayor of Newark presided over the first same-sex marriage legally sanctioned by New Jersey, now the 14th state (plus the District of Columbia) where gay marriage is legal. “It’s about time,” he declared after the vows were exchanged a minute after midnight on Oct. 21.

That puts the vote count at 56. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democrat who has made the bill his top priority before retiring next year, is working with the leadership to arrange debate in early November — and he’s said he wouldn’t ask for floor time until he was confident of victory.

The targets for the final votes are relatively easy to identify. Eleven gay rights, civil rights and labor organizations have formed Americans for Workplace Opportunity, a coalition that’s spending $2.5 million this month to deploy 30 field organizers to stage 150 grass-roots events and lobby uncommitted senators in nine states.

One of the advocacy groups — the American Unity Fund, a creation of big-time Republican donor and hedge fund billionaire Paul Singer — has also hired former GOP Sen. Norm Coleman of Minnesota and former Rep. Tom. Reynolds of New York (who ran the National Republican Congressional Committee in 2005 and 2006) to lobby for ENDA.

The Republican targets are Rob Portman in Ohio, Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire, Dean Heller in Nevada, Patrick J. Toomey in Pennsylvania, Dan Coats in Indiana and Jeff Flake of Arizona, who voted in the House to pass a somewhat narrower version of ENDA six years ago. Full story

September 2, 2013

GOP Missed an Opportunity in Skipping MLK March Anniversary

As the world was reminded anew last week, the last living bridge between the 1963 March on Washington and the Washington of today is John Lewis, a civil rights icon since the movement flowered in the early 1960s and Atlanta’s congressman since the late 1980s.

His brief remarks at the march’s 50th anniversary commemoration gained little attention, trumped easily by the symbolic power of having an African-American president offer the keynote at the Lincoln Memorial. But the day brought to mind what Lewis said on those steps half a century before — words reflecting the profound disenfranchisement black people felt then and pointing to how Democrats and Republicans have responded since.

“What political leader here can stand up and say, ‘My party is the party of principles’?” Lewis asked in 1963, noting how reviled promoters of racial oppression, as well as renowned champions of social justice, were prominent in both parties in Congress. “Where is our party? Where is the political party that will make it unnecessary to march on Washington?”

Fifty years on, the sprawling roster of unfinished business and unmet dreams lamented from the podium, and the tens of thousands gathered on the Mall, made clear that Washington isn’t close to salving all the anger and worry that gets people on their feet. But the tableau was an unmistakable reminder that only one party has made common cause with those marchers for most of the decades since.

Not a single elected Republican took to the lectern, though invitations to deliver remarks were extended to at least a half-dozen. Unintended or not, organizers were left with the impression that their causes had once again been disrespected by the GOP high command, which in theory had the organizational savvy, internal communications skills and political wherewithal to deliver at least one member of their party’s A list to the podium. Full story

July 17, 2013

New Voting Rights Law Hinges on Some Less-Visible Republicans

There’s a ready temptation for those who dismiss any talk that Congress might agree on a way to revamp the Voting Rights Act.

Look no further, they might say, than the ideologically opposite lawmakers who have become the most visible players on the future of the law:

Making back-to-back images of Lewis and Franks shorthand for the inevitable impasse over rewriting the statute may be expedient for both sides’ partisan interests. But there’s still a long-shot chance it could prove premature.

If there’s a shot at a deal in the next year, it may rest with two other House members who are hardly as well-known to those who watch cable television news. They are Republicans who have quite different, but equally pressing, incentives for bolstering protections for voting. Full story

July 10, 2013

LGBT Civil Rights Get a Late Boost From a Lagging Congress

Updated 5:06 p.m. | It would have been unthinkable, maybe only a year ago, that legislation to expand gay civil rights would win more bipartisan support than legislation protecting college kids from a doubling of their student loan rates.

That’s what happened in the Senate this week. Tuesday morning, three Republicans joined all 12 Democrats on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee in voting for a federal prohibition on workplace harassment and job discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. 

Then, at lunchtime, a White House-backed proposal to keep the Stafford loan rate at 3.4 percent for another year was blocked on the floor after no Republicans lined up behind it.

The two roll calls underscore one of Washington’s most unexpected but important storylines of the year: the progress of people who aren’t heterosexual in overcoming the walls of government-countenanced discrimination.  Congress now shares a starring role with the Supreme Court as the most important venue for their cause, with President Barack Obama squarely on board.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said the president was eager to sign the job bias prohibition because it “upholds America’s core values of fairness and equality.”

The HELP Committee’s 15-7 tally guarantees a majority of senators would vote for passage, and that support is at most a handful shy of the 60 senators necessary to overcome a filibuster by Republican cultural conservatives.

Advocates say those votes are within reach and that Majority Leader Harry Reid was prepared to put the bill on the floor as soon as passage is assured.

Doing so by early fall would allow a full year for lobbying the House, where passage at the moment looks to be a decided long shot. Speaker John A. Boehner has made clear that such consequential bills will advance only if they have proven support from a majority of his GOP majority.

The companion bill to what advanced in the Senate on Tuesday has just three GOP sponsors. Nine other Republicans voted “yes” when the House passed a somewhat narrower measure; it would have banned job discrimination based on sexual orientation but was silent on gender identity.

Still, public sentiment in favor of gay rights is expanding so rapidly that the political dynamic could be different by next summer. It’s not totally implausible that, even before the next election, advocates of gay rights may achieve their top legislative goal for the past two decades — something that’s arguably as important as the twin victories won at the high court two weeks ago.

“I think society is there and the things that have happened in the Supreme Court show we’re ready to move on in a way we haven’t moved on in the past,” said HELP Chairman Tom Harkin of Iowa, who has made enacting the anti-discrimination bill the top priority of his term before retiring next year.

The national discussion created by the California ban and Defense of Marriage Act cases helped prompt at least eight senators to reverse course and declare their support for gay marriage, creating a majority of 54 on that side of the debate now. The recent converts include Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Mark S. Kirk of Illinois, who were joined by Orrin G. Hatch of Utah as the Republicans voting “yes” in committee.

The bill has one other GOP sponsor, Susan Collins of Maine, who’s not on the committee. Those four Republican votes, combined with those of the 51 Democratic co-sponsors, would bring the floor majority for the bill to 55.

Bill Nelson of Florida, who was among those who switched to support gay marriage this spring, is among the three Democrats who have not signed on. The others are Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, who are opposed to gay marriage (so is Democrat Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana, but she’s a bill co-sponsor).

Lobbyists for the bill say they hope to reverse the current opposition of two Republicans: Richard M. Burr of North Carolina, who was among the eight GOP senators who voted to repeal the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law three years ago; and Rob Portman of Ohio, who has declared himself a supporter of gay marriage. They also hope to woo Jeff Flake of Arizona, who voted in the House for the 2007 version of the bill. That measure would not have extended to transgender workers, which the Senate bill does.

That legislation would prohibit businesses of 15 or more workers, as well as employment agencies and labor organizations, from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity when making hiring, firing, payment or promotion decisions. In a concession essential to winning any GOP votes, the bill has an exemption permitting churches and other religious organizations to make personnel decisions based on their faith tenets.

By the start of next month, same-sex marriages will be legal in 13 states and Washington, D.C.  But 17 states and D.C. prohibit workplace discrimination based on either sexual orientation or gender identity — as do a majority of Fortune 500 companies.

The tide of national sentiment may once again drag Congress to the political place it needs to be.

June 26, 2013

Gingrich’s 17-Year Culture War Against Gay Marriage Falls Flat

It’s a remarkable coincidence that Newt Gingrich’s latest career move was announced Wednesday morning, moments before the Supreme Court struck down his most consequential legislative victory in the culture wars.

The pictures of Gingrich, just given top billing as the voice “on the right” of CNN’s revived shoutfest “Crossfire,” brought back a flood of recollections about the societal and political situation 17 years ago, when the star-crossed Defense of Marriage Act was written.

Those memories help explain why such a sweeping measure made its way into the federal law books so relatively easily back then and why such a heavy federal stamp of disapproval on an entire category of people has no chance of enactment now. Full story

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