Guest Blogger

Something rotten in the Senate

Filed By Guest Blogger | July 20, 2007 12:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Politics
Tags: Chris Crain, Democrats, election 2008, hate crimes against LGBT people, Matthew Shepard Act, Senate

[EDITOR'S NOTE:] The following is a guest post by Chris Crain. Chris is former editor of the Washington Blade, Southern Voice, and gay publications in three other cities. He blogs at CitizenCrain.com and is the editor of GayNewsWatch.com. He lives with his partner as a “love exile” in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil.

chriscrain.jpgThere'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 atttached 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 pending 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.


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Kevin Lahti | July 20, 2007 12:51 PM

Too Hot a potato?? well if that doesnt just scream politics isnt working... Why should I have to be a second class citizen so some politician can have a long good career.. You know I'd like to have a long good career too.. might not happen since I can be fired for being gay..

Why should we be surprised that by following HRC's "strategy" of playing the insider game has left us with "politics as usual" and the status quo?

The LGBT community should model the behavior of the progressive blogosphere and have clearly articulated and non-negotiable principles by which they operate.

Chris,

You make some really good point in this post. We have not put nearly enough pressure on the Democrats to push through LGBT civil rights bills. We have given the Democrats too many passes and have not done a strong enough job in taking out Democrats who do not vote with us.

When I have said before that we need to do the grunt work of building serious grassroots pressure to light a fire under the butts of our Democratic allies, this is part of what I mean. We all need to be making a much better effort to build support among moderate Republicans. And, we need to build the kind of strength needed to electorally take out anyone who seeks to harm us.

The hate crimes bill was added to the DOD authorization bill because that would make it much harder for President Bush to veto the bill which he has said that he would do. Its a smart strategy that has hit a serious snag.

When you say that the Dems have been in the majority for six months and no gay rights bill has made it to their priority list you are correct. But, that's partially because we have not forced them to make it a priority and because the Republicans have played obstructionist at every turn and have blocked most legislation from passing. Its not just the LGBT community that has been experiencing legislative frustration, so has the environmental movement, the African-American and Latino communities, gun safety advocates and others including the anti-war movement.

My point is that we need a much stringer coordinated strategy for moving legislation forward that utilizes a multiplicity of tactics. We also need to help our national organizations get better and stronger and we need to be prepare to remove from office targeted members of Congress who do not support LGBT equality.

I have said it here before and I will say it again. While the majority of Americans may now have a live and let live attitude concerning gays and lesbians they still believe that being gay is a choice. If you make a choice then why should you be protected? Being gay is NOT a choice despite what some occassional strange entity has said in public in the last thirty years. Ask your straight friends for a true assessment of what they really believe about the issue of nature vs. choice. If you feel that your friends will not give you an honest answer then start looking for straights who will. I am not wrong on this but I wish I were. For far too long the gay and lesbian community has paid tribute to the Democratic Party as being the pro gay rights party. It isn't and never has been. Individual politicians, yes, but the party NO! I am an Independent for good reason and it's about time the so called leaders of the gay and lesbian family stood up to the Democratic Party and said put up or shut up! Or maybe it's time for new leaders!

Bruce Parker | July 21, 2007 7:43 AM

Tony,

You seem so insistent that gayness isn't a choice which seems to lead me to ask, if you think who you are is so terrible that no one could ever choose to be it? I am not honestly sure if I choose my sexual attraction. I am equally as uncomfortable thinking of it as something totally beyond my control. There is something reassuring in thinking that I have some degree of choice in who I love.

Bruce,

I didn't say that who I was or who you are is terrible. Those are your words.I do not believe that you have any choice over who you are sexually attracted to on a basic level. You have total control over who you love and how you behave. If your assertion is that you chose to be gay good for you. Unfortunately you would then represent exactly why so many aren't interested in gay rights. When you choose to do something you take the responsibility of accepting the consequences of your actions and therefore the judgement of the community as a whole. When you have not chosen but are simply who you are as nature intended then no one has the right to judge you. You may not be comfortable confronting the issue of nature vs. choice but I am and I guarantee you that real progress on a political level will only be achieved when this discussion is settled.

I dunno if that's the key to progress, Tony. I mean, there are lots of choices that are protected, like religion. And I hate to make a glib comparison, but I don't think this is, race isn't a choice, but that doesn't mean that there's full equality of all racial minorities in this country.

I think we should move beyond the "it's in-born/it's a choice" debate. I don't think that Bruce was saying that his sexuality is a choice in the same way one chooses to eat strawberries instead of raspberries, but even if it is, why is that choice illegitimate? Why are violence, both rhetorical and physical, unemployment, smaller incomes, etc. appropriate responses if it were a choice?

Just because someone makes a certain decision doesn't mean that they aren't entitled to make that decision. I think that's what bothers me about the whole choice/nature debate - if we prove that sexual orientation isn't a choice to these folks (like that's even possible with some of them), then will they just find another axis across which to delegitimize other valid, non-exploitative choices (eg. good gays who are monogamous/exclusive vs. those who hook up, "virtuous" women vs. slutty women)?

It's a choice for homophobes to be jerks, and that seems to be pretty well protected by the First Amendment. Just sayin'.

Alex,

Life is full of choices. I could have chose not to respond further but clearly I didn't. I could provide much more on this subject but it seems doubtful that it would be beneficial. Your points are valid but none of them contradict what I was saying or diminish the toughts behind them. I don't care about homophobes, you will never change those people. I'm interested in those who are not necessarily against the gay community but question rather "Our choices" warrant any discussion in the legislative houses of this country. I used to just read Bilerico and not comment. Lately as I read this forum I begin to clearly see how I have always been a minority in the gay community. What rights may I legislate for as a minority within a minority?