July 20, 2007
Something rotten in the Senate
Posted by: Chris
There's disappointing (if not surprising) news on the fate of a gay-inclusive hate crimes bill in the U.S. Senate. According to HRC's Back Story blog, the debate on Iraq has dragged down with it the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention/Local Law Enforcement Act, the bill's official title. The blog quotes an explanation from HRC legislative director Allison Herwitt:
After a protracted debate about the Iraq war, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid temporarily suspended consideration of the Department of Defense (DoD) Authorization bill. Earlier, Senators Kennedy and Smith had filed hate crimes as a potential amendment to the DoD bill. As a result, consideration of both the bill and hate crimes will be delayed for the moment. Reid pulled the bill after the Levin-Reed amendment failed to garner the necessary 60 votes -- a procedural hurdle needed to end a filibuster against the amendment. Levin-Reed would have called for withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq by next spring. This could mean that a vote on hate crimes may not occur before Congress adjourns for its August recess.
Our congressional allies -- including Senate leadership -- remain committed to getting a vote on hate crimes this year. Senators Kennedy and Smith continue to look for ways to advance this crucial legislation.
All this still begs the question of why in the first place HRC and its Democratic allies in the Senate chose to burden the hate crimes bill by linking it to easily the most controversial piece of legislation in Congress. The hate crimes measure has bipartisan majority support in the Senate and so would pass if voted on as a free-standing measure (or attached to something germane and not so controversial).
There is the potential for filibuster, of course, which would raise the bar to 60 votes for Senate passage, but there's no guarantee (or even a specific threat) that the Republicans would target such a popular measure or that there'd be too few votes to overcome a filibuster if attempted. In fact, the last time the gay-inclusive hate crimes bill passed the Senate, in June 2004, the vote was 65 to 33, with 18 Republicans voting in favor. That's not only enough to overcome a filibuster, it's just shy of enough to override a veto.
And yet once again, like so many times before, through years when Democrats controlled one or both houses of Congress and even the White House, gay rights bills wallow as low priority items. There's no talk of votes in the House and Senate for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act either, even though it has majority support in both chambers. We shouldn't be surprised. Democrats and their lackies at HRC have been hinting privately since January that "the deal" with the party's leadership is that only hate crimes would get a vote this year, so this "frustrating delay" fits the pattern.
What further evidence do we need that gay rights are little more than a political football to Howard Dean, Harry Reid and other Democratic leaders? They called for votes on gay rights measures when the GOP controlled Congress and they knew Republicans would kill them, but they sit on their hands when they're in control.
They sit on their hands not because they oppose our civil rights. Their support is real, if mostly rhetorical. But they know that if a hate crimes bill passes, or even if it's vetoed, the gays will start clamoring for a vote on ENDA. If ENDA passes or is vetoed, then "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is next on the list. And as we travel down that list, the political risk to Democrats grows. Or worse yet, a lame duck Republican president might sign hate crimes or ENDA, and the Democrats' lock on being the party of equality would be challenged.
It all boils down to this: Democrats have controlled Congress for six months now, and no gay rights bill has made it to their priority list for passage. Now, according to HRC, all we've got is a "commitment" for a vote on hate crimes "this year." Even if that happens, that still leaves ENDA, "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," and a half-dozen other gay rights bills languishing in Congress.
And when "this year" is over, and maybe hate crimes at best will have gotten a vote, we already know what we'll be told because we've heard it so many times before: 2008 is an election year, and gay rights is too hot a potato to touch right now. Now more than ever is the time for action from our "courageous" Senate allies Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama, Joe Biden and Chris Dodd. They've all promised "leadership" on gay rights if elected president, so let's see some "leadership" now and demand a vote in the Senate on the gay rights bills that are pending.
And just to get this out of the way (for the 100th time): By criticizing these Democrats, I am not saying Republicans are better. Of course they're not. And anyone who suggests differently should have their head examined. But the question is whether our energy is better spent complaining about conservative Republicans we’ll never change or pressing "friendly" Democrats who actually control the fate of gay rights legislation. Even our friends in Congress are politicians first and will take the path of least resistance. We need to make action more attractive than inaction for them. Look no further than the anti-war movement’s unrelenting pressure and the way Democrats have responded. Only we have the votes on our bills that they do not.
Regular readers will remember my tete-a-tete with "Bloggernista," who wrote on his blog, Pam's House Blend and Bilerico last week that Andrew Sullivan and I should quit sniping at HRC and focus on "the real work" of the gay rights movement: calling Senate offices to pass the hate crimes bill. Like that would have made a difference. Now I have a question for Bloggernista: When will we wake up to the reality that HRC's willingness to be co-opted by the Democrats, and the Democrats willingness to play politics with our equality, is really where we need to focus our attention?
If the gay blogosphere and its supporters really want to be effective, we’ll put aside championing lost causes like Mike Gravel and join together to press HRC and the Democrats for a vote on hate crimes by the end of the summer, and ENDA by the end of the year. Bring our bills to a vote! Bring our bills to a vote!
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