Gay rights activists have turned their attention to US President Barack Obama now that the Senate has passed a historic measure to outlaw workplace discrimination against gays, urging him to sign a long-sought-after executive order that would have the same effect, though on a much smaller scale.
The quick shift underscores the reality that the bill is unlikely to ever reach Obama’s desk. While the anti-discrimination measure passed comfortably on Thursday in the Democratic-controlled Senate, it may never get a vote in the Republican-led House because of House Speaker John Boehner’s opposition.
“We call on President Obama to send a clear message in support of workplace fairness by signing this executive order,” said Chad Griffin, president of the gay advocacy group Human Rights Campaign.
However, gay rights groups and the White House appear to have differing views of the opportunities presented by that political landscape. While activists take Boehner’s opposition as a clear sign the president should act on his own to extend workplace protections to gays and transgender people, White House officials see an opportunity to cast Republicans as outside the mainstream on gay rights.
“We will use this as an opportunity to ramp up pressure on Republicans to act on the bipartisan legislation that was passed in the Senate,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.
The Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) would bar employers with 15 or more workers from using a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity as the basis for making employment decisions, including hiring, firing, compensation or promotion. Religious institutions and the military would be exempted.
Sixty-four senators, including 10 Republicans, voted on Thursday for ENDA, the first major gay rights bill since US Congress repealed the ban on gays in the military three years ago. Outside conservative groups have cast the bill as anti-family, while Boehner argues it is certain to create costly, frivolous lawsuits for businesses.
If the president signs an executive order, it would contain the same protections as the Senate bill, but they would apply only to people working for federal contractors. That constitutes about 20 percent of the nation’s workforce.
Obama backed an executive order along those lines when he was running for president in 2008, but has deferred to Congress since taking office.
In recent days, White House officials have not directly ruled out Obama signing an executive order, but they have tamped down expectations that he would take such action quickly, before knowing for sure how Boehner and House Republicans plan to respond to the Senate passage of ENDA.
Obama aides also say they remain hopeful that sustained pressure might push Boehner to allow a vote on the measure, even if the majority of Republicans would probably vote against it.