House Republicans Vote For Anti-LGBT Job Discrimination

Terrance Heath

Three years after the Senate passed ENDA, and president Obama signed executive orders protecting LGBT employees of federal contractors from discrimination, House Republicans voted to write anti-LGBT discrimination in law.

The floor of the House of Representatives erupted in chaos Thursday, when House Republican leadership arm-twisted several members into switching their votes to ensure the defeat of an amendment to protect LGBT workers from job discrimination in the National Defense Authorization Act. The amendment, offered by Rep. Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.) would have prohibited federal funds being used to implement contacts with any company that did not comply with President Obama’s 2013 executive order banning federal contractors from discriminating against LGBT employees.

At first, it looked like the amendment — which only needed 2013 votes to pass — passed, with 217 “yes” votes to 206 “no” votes, when the clock ran out. But Republican leaders scrambled to pressure the handful of Republicans who joined Democrats and voted “yes,” to switch their votes. House Majority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) kept the vote open long enough for seven Republicans, mostly from Western states, and some who are vulnerable this fall, to flip their votes: Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), Rep. Jeff Dunham (R-Calif.), Rep. Mimi Walters (R-Calif.), Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), Rep. David Young (R-Iowa), Rep. Bruce Poliquin (R-Maine).

Meanwhile, Democrats stood watching the vote change over 10 minutes. The “yes” votes dropped to 212, one vote shy of passing, despite the fact that no representative went into the well to change their votes. Under House rules, once the speaker asks “Does anyone wish to change their vote?”, members are supposed to go to the front podium to publicly change their votes. But Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) never uttered the phrase, thus keeping the vote open well past the two-minute voting block limit.

Republicans offered various excuses for the extraordinary turn of events, saying that if passed the amendment would have killed the killed the appropriations bill, because no Republicans would have voted for it. Apparently, Republicans are willing to kill a whole appropriations bill if it means prohibiting job discrimination against LGBT workers. Alternately, some claimed that the Republican representatives may have changed their votes because the issue was settled with the passage of the defense authorization bill the night before, which contained a “religious exemption” allowing federal contractors to discriminate against LGBT employees on “religious grounds.” Speaker Paul Ryan claimed not to know if the seven switchers were pressured to change their votes, and sought cover in federalism, telling reporters “This is federalism; the states should do this. The federal government shouldn’t stick its nose in its business.” (Since when are federal contracts not the federal governments business?) Others simply insisted that Republicans “do not discriminate,” despite their votes.

At the end of the day, House Republicans used procedural shenanigans to allow seven members to switch their votes and write discrimination into federal law.

In a sense, the situation is just another sign that — despite the outcome — conservatives are losing the “culture war.” That the amendment initially passed with Republican support reflects that LGBT rights supporters’ quiet battle to move Republicans closer to the middle on efforts is making headway. Some Republicans are publicly bucking their party on LGBT rights. For some, it’s personal. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lethinen (R, Fla.) who sat shaking her head in apparent disappointment on Thursday, is the mother of a transgender son, and has launched a bilingual campaign to advocate for transgender rights.

The tide has turned, and Republicans know it, but they’re still floundering in the surf. The debacles in Indiana and North Carolina show that the GOP’s tradition business allies are not on board with anti-LGBT discrimination. The party’s anti-equality stance isn’t likely to win it any new constituents either. A Bloomberg Politics poll last year showed that 74 percent — nearly three-quarters — of Americans believe LGBT people should be part of a “protected class.” (A majority also believed same-sex marriage would be legal across the country within the next decade.) A Center for American Progress poll from that time found that a majority — 65 percent — of Americans aged 18 to 34 favor laws protecting LGBT people from discrimination in areas such as employment and housing.

Still held hostage by an extremist “Freedom Caucus,” and painted into a corner by decades of their own rhetoric, it looks like Republican leadership tried to quietly avoid offending the most radical members of the caucus and constituencies, and outraging pro-LGBT equality American public. On the latter, which bodes ill for the party’s future, they failed miserably. Maybe that’s why House Leaders quietly stripped from a VA bill language that would have rolled back expanded rights for LGBT employees of federal contractors, after gay rights groups and Democrats protested. Nobody wants a repeat last week’s fiasco.

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