Republicans in Congress are divided over whether to support legislation granting historic workplace protections to gay and lesbian Americans, another vivid illustration of the party’s internal tug-of-war between ideology and political considerations.
The Senate could hold a test vote as soon as Monday to advance the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which would prohibit many employers from discriminating on the basis of an individual’s sexual orientation or perceived gender identity. Most employers affiliated with a religious group aren’t subjected to the law.
The debate is set to highlight continued Republican resistance to most gay rights just a few months after party elders counseled the GOP to soften its tone on gay rights or risk alienating future generations of voters.
“Already, there is a generational difference within the conservative movement about issues involving the treatment and the rights of gays,” said the “Growth and Opportunity Project” report, an autopsy of the 2012 election commissioned by the Republican National Committee. “And for many younger voters, these issues are a gateway into whether the Party is a place they want to be.”
The results so far have been mixed. A handful of Republican senators have this year called for legalizing same-sex marriage, including Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, who has a gay son.
Proponents of the legislation will need to clear the 60-vote threshold needed to avoid a filibuster, meaning that at least five Republicans will have to vote for the legislation (assuming every Democrat and independent also votes for the bill).
Those efforts received a major boost on Monday from Nevada Republican Sen. Dean Heller, who said he planned to vote to advance ENDA.
"After listening to Nevadans' concerns about this issue from a variety of viewpoints and after numerous conversations with my colleagues, I feel that supporting this legislation is the right thing to do,” he said in a statement. Heller’s vote, alone with the votes of three Republican senators who supported the bill in committee and Maine Sen. Susan Collins (a Republican cosponsor of the bill) improved the prospects for advancing ENDA from the Senate.
The legislation arguably presents Republicans with an opportunity to soften their image among gays, lesbians and young voters, but appears likely dead on arrival in the Republican-held House.
"The speaker believes this legislation will increase frivolous litigation and cost American jobs, especially small-business jobs," a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, told the Huffington Post on Monday.
In response, White House press secretary Jay Carney said Boehner’s words echo the language used by political figures in history to oppose civil rights legislation.
“That opposition was wrong then and it's wrong now,” Carney said Monday at his daily press briefing.
Boehner and the House GOP leadership also spent millions – over the objections of House Democrats – to defend the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) before the Supreme Court after the Obama administration said it would no longer defend the law. The Supreme Court struck down DOMA in a 5-4 vote earlier this year, only after Republicans had spent millions on attorneys to defend the law.
This week’s inaction – or lack thereof – on ENDA vividly illustrates the Republican Party’s continued struggle to remake itself to broaden the party’s appeal. Fifty-five percent of Americans now support gay and lesbian couples’ right to wed, according to a Bloomberg News poll conducted this September, versus 36 percent who oppose marriage rights. That’s a dramatic reversal in public opinion just in the past decade.
But Republicans still struggle with the issue of gay rights.
Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney reiterated his opposition to same-sex marriage last year, but acknowledged it was a “tender and sensitive topic.”
Social conservative activists still play an influential role in Republican nominating contests for the House, Senate and the presidency. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has for instance incurred some early wrath from social conservatives in presidential nominating states for not fighting a court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage in his state more doggedly.
And Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli has struggled in this year’s Virginia governor’s race for some of his views about same-sex marriage. Cuccinelli referred to “the personal challenge of homosexuality” during a debate this summer when asked about his views toward gay and lesbian couples, and his office had defended an anti-sodomy law on Virginia’s books until the U.S. Supreme Court denied a request to hear the case.
And the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington has pointedly barred gay Republican groups from participating in the conference for the past two years. Conservative proponents of same-sex marriage nonetheless managed to convene a satellite event on same-sex marriage, one of the conference’s best-attended events this year.