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Hate crimes bill in limbo
Senate leaders mum on timetable; Pelosi sees ENDA vote in September
By LOU CHIBBARO JR. | Jul 26, 10:16 AM

A gay- and transgender-inclusive hate crimes bill will remain stalled in the Senate until at least September and could remain in limbo until October or later, Capitol Hill sources familiar with the legislation said.

In a related development, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) indicated this week she expects to bring another key gay rights bill, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, or ENDA, to the House floor for a vote in September.

“We expect ENDA on the floor in September,” said Sydney Jones, a Pelosi spokesperson.

ENDA would ban employment discrimination based on a person’s sexual orientation and gender identity.

Gay rights leaders had hoped the Senate would vote to approve the Matthew Shepard Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act earlier this month as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act.

But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) pulled the defense bill from the Senate floor July 18 after it became entangled in a heated debate over the Iraq war, raising questions about its use as a “vehicle” for the hate crimes bill.

The Shepard hate crimes bill would give the federal government authority to prosecute hate crimes based on a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity, gender or disability.

The Human Rights Campaign and the National Center for Transgender Equality said this week that the strategy of seeking to attach the bill to the defense authorization measure appears to be the best option for passing the bill in the Senate, despite the road block created by Reid putting the defense bill on hold.

Earlier this year, Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Gordon Smith (R-Ore.), the two lead sponsors of the Senate hate crimes bill, decided to offer the bill as an amendment to the defense measure as a safeguard against a possible veto by President Bush.

The White House announced in May that the president was strongly considering vetoing the hate crimes bill on grounds that state and local law enforcement agencies should prosecute hate crimes and the federal government should not become involved in such prosecutions. The announcement came one day before the House voted 237-180 on May 3 to approve a version of the hate crimes bill identical to the one before the Senate.

Reid removed the defense bill from the Senate floor after Republican senators staged a filibuster to kill a separate amendment to the bill backed by Democrats that called for withdrawing U.S. combat troops from Iraq by May 1.

He said his decision to “temporarily” pull the bill was aimed at prodding Republican senators to end their filibuster of the troop withdrawal amendment.

A Reid spokesperson said Reid has not said when he would bring the defense bill back to the floor for a vote. The spokesperson, Rodell Mollineau, said Reid supports the hate crimes bill and is committed to arranging for a vote on the bill this year. He said Reid would talk to Kennedy about a possible alternate vehicle for the bill if the defense bill remains stalled over Iraq war amendments.

Capitol Hill observers have said Bush would be much less likely to veto an important defense authorization bill solely because it contained a hate crimes bill as an amendment.

However, Bush vowed to veto the defense bill if it includes an amendment calling for troop withdrawals in Iraq. Thus if Reid and Senate Democrats succeed in breaking the Republican filibuster of their anti-war amendment — a development many experts consider unlikely — it would ensure a Bush veto of a defense bill expected to include a hate crimes amendment.

Democrats have acknowledged they don’t have the two-thirds vote needed to override a Bush veto.

Other groups participating in the coalition of civil rights organizations lobbying Congress for passage of the hate crimes bill did not respond to calls this week from the Blade to determine their views on the strategy of submitting the bill as an amendment to the defense authorization measure.

Among the groups contacted were Parents & Friends of Lesbians & Gays, Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, Anti-Defamation League and National Council of Jewish Women.

The existing defense authorization act expires in October. A spokesperson for Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Congress has not failed to pass a defense authorization bill each year for the past 50 years. That history has led some gay and transgender leaders to feel secure that the defense bill remains a safe vehicle for the hate crimes measure.

“I think Senator Kennedy did the right thing,” said Mara Keisling, executive director of the Washington-based National Center for Transgender Equality.

“Senator Kennedy is committed to civil rights and equality for LGBT people and is highly knowledgeable on how to get legislation through the Senate,” Keisling said.

Georgetown University government professor Clyde Wilcox, author of the book “Politics of Gay Rights,” said he expects the Senate to pass the defense authorization bill sometime this year based on precedent. When that happens, he said, there would be enormous pressure on the president to sign the bill, even if it has a hate crimes amendment attached to it.

“This is a president who is very unpopular due to the war,” Wilcox said. “Does he really want to veto a full defense authorization bill over a hate crimes amendment? He doesn’t have the political capital to do that.”

Allison Herwitt, HRC’s legislative director, said HRC believes the defense authorization measure is the “best option” for passing a hate crimes bill.

“Regardless of the vehicle, the leadership remains strongly committed to a vote on hate crimes this year,” Herwitt said.

Herwitt noted that in 2004, the Senate voted 65 to 33 to pass the hate crimes bill in the form of an amendment to a defense authorization bill. The hate crimes bill died that year after House GOP leaders blocked it from coming to the floor for a vote.

Although Reid is said to be committed to Senate passage of the hate crimes bill, his decision to delay action on the defense bill upsets the timetable that gay leaders and their congressional allies had set for successive votes this year in the House and Senate on both the hate crimes bill and ENDA.

One former Senate staffer and current Capitol Hill lobbyist said the Senate would be hard pressed to find the time to schedule an ENDA debate and vote by year’s end.

With a number of crucial appropriations bills waiting for Senate action, said the lobbyist, who spoke on condition that he not be identified, Reid and Senate Democratic leaders would have to juggle Senate business to accommodate an ENDA vote. He said concern by some Democratic senators from conservative states that an ENDA vote could hurt their chances for re-election in 2008 provides an incentive to put off an ENDA vote this year in the Senate.

“We’re effectively in September now, and the year is really closing fast,” he said. “The sand is running out of the hour glass on ENDA.”

Keisling disputed this assessment, saying a House vote on ENDA in September would open the way for Senate action on the gay rights bill in the fall.

“That’s five-year-old data,” she said, in referring to the lobbyist’s claim that Democrats are worried about ENDA hurting them at the polls.

“Holding something up that has support from 80 percent of the American people doesn’t make sense,” Keisling said.

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