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'We need to pass the Equality Act': Sen. Tammy Baldwin makes case for LGBTQ bill

The Equality Act, which has been introduced in various forms since 1974, has never been given a floor vote in Congress. That could change this year.
Image: Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., leaves a luncheon at the Capitol on Sept. 7, 2016.
Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., leaves a luncheon at the Capitol on Sept. 7, 2016.Bill Clark / CQ Roll Call via AP file

Democrats in Congress plan to reintroduce the Equality Act, a federal bill that would modify existing civil rights legislation to ban discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

“In the majority of states, people in the LGBTQ community can be fired from a job perhaps because of their sexual orientation or gender identity and would have no recourse,” said Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., a sponsor of the bill and one of 10 openly LGBTQ members of Congress. “We want to live in a country that, you know, judges people based on their performance and their character, and so we need to pass the Equality Act at the federal level.”

Currently, less than half of U.S. states explicitly prohibit discrimination due to sexual orientation and gender identity. The Equality Act would apply across the United States by updating federal civil rights law to ban discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodations, jury service, education, federal programs and credit on the basis of “race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, age, or disability.”

The bill is expected to be reintroduced in both chambers of Congress on Wednesday. With Democrats now in control of the House of Representatives, Speaker Nancy Pelosi — who during the 2018 midterm elections said passage of the Equality Act would be a top priority for Democrats — is sure to bring it up for a floor vote. With the Senate firmly under Republican control, however, chances of the bill making it to a vote are uncertain.

“Full equality has not been won ... We can't confuse progress for victory.”

Sen. Tammy Baldwin

In an exclusive interview with NBC News on Monday, Baldwin said if Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., were to give senators a chance to vote on the Equality Act, they would support the measure.

“If you just had an up or down vote, we would have sufficient votes in both houses,” Baldwin said. “I think what the House passage will tell us is that the 2020 elections are really important to create and vote for a pro-equality Senate and president.”

When asked if McConnell would bring the Equality Act up for a vote on the Senate floor after it is reintroduced, David Popp, McConnell’s press secretary, was equivocal: “If the Leader issues a statement on this I’ll be sure to forward it to you,” he wrote in an email.

In addition to strong Democratic support, the Equality Act has 161 corporate backers that represent $3.7 trillion in revenue and operations across all 50 states, CNBC reported.These companies — which include Apple, Google, Facebook, Wal-Mart and JPMorgan — represent a broad coalition of business and financial interests that in recent years has coalesced around robust LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections.

If the Equality Act reaches a full vote in either chamber of Congress, it will mark the first time the bill — which has been introduced in various forms since 1974 — has done so. A similar bill, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, or ENDA, passed the Senate in 2013. Four currently serving Republican senators voted in favor of that bill: Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Patrick Toomey, R-Pa.

Baldwin said one of the challenges in advocating for the Equality Act is “educating people that full equality has not been won or achieved yet.” After the Supreme Court’s landmark 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges decision, which led to the legalization of same-sex marriage across the U.S., she said many Americans believed “we achieved everything” in terms of LGBTQ equality.

“Full equality has not been won,” Baldwin told NBC News. “We can't confuse progress for victory.”