Merkley on ENDA: ‘I won’t rest till we can get this passed in the Senate’

Sen. Jeff Merkley. Photo by Julie Cortez, PQ Monthly
Sen. Jeff Merkley. Photo by Julie Cortez, PQ Monthly
By Julie Cortez, PQ Monthly

Marriage equality and immigration reform have been getting a lot of attention lately, but another long fight for LGBTQ rights is gaining momentum: federal prohibition of employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), who led a group of 37 U.S. senators that sent a letter to President Obama in February calling on him to issue an executive order on the languishing Employee Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), told PQ Monthly that before Sen. Ted Kennedy died in 2009, he asked the then-newly-elected Merkley to take over his battle for ENDA.

“I won’t rest till we can get this passed in the Senate,” Merkley said during an interview in his Portland office. While Oregon’s junior U.S. senator had hoped to set a hearing committee on the bill in May or June of this year, Merkley said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) — who chairs the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee — is confident he’ll be able to set a hearing in July.

“I think we have very good odds of passing it,” Merkley said, pointing out that the legislation fell just one vote short in 1996, when Democrats only had a simple majority.

While Merkley is “very comfortable” with ENDA as it stands now, he is disappointed that same-sex binational couples weren’t included in the immigration reform bill that made it out of committee in May. Republicans in the “Gang of 8” insisted inclusion of same-sex couples would be a deal-breaker.

“The Constitution calls for equality — and equality should be honored,” Merkley said.

And it might be, either through the possible addition of an amendment, or by the U.S. Supreme Court striking down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). To improve the odds for ENDA and for LGBTQ inclusion in the immigration bill, Merkley encourages members of the LGTBQ community and their allies to email their Congressional offices to express support, and to urge any associations and organizations they’re part of to throw their weight behind the fight.

“Whatever you’re part of,” he said, “use their national leadership.”

Merkley and Oregon Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian will further discuss ENDA during a forum and town hall hosted by HRC Oregon & SW Washington this Saturday, June 8, from 3 p.m. to 4:30 p.m., at Q Center (4115 N. Mississippi Ave., Portland). RSVP here, or on Facebook.