White House calls ENDA a priority but has done little to prioritize it, critics say

But a White House senior adviser says the president remains dedicated to passing the non-discrimination legislation

Published April 14, 2013 9:04PM (EDT)

        (Wikipedia/Ludovic Bertron)
(Wikipedia/Ludovic Bertron)

White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett told Reuters in an interview on Sunday that President Obama is hoping to bolster his record on gay rights with a push for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), but congressional aides say there is little evidence to indicate his administration is prioritizing the legislation.

"ENDA is a priority. Right now the votes aren't there, but that doesn't mean they won't be," Jarrett told Reuters.

While a growing number of lawmakers have come out in support of marriage equality, few of the recent congressional gay rights converts have endorsed the measure to protect gay and transgender people from job discrimination. (Looking directly at you, Rob Portman, et al.)

It is currently legal to fire someone for being gay in 29 states. Transgender people are vulnerable to job discrimination in 34 states. This is why the Obama administration must push Congress to pass federal protections, gay rights advocates argue. The alternative other advocates suggest? Sign an executive order.

An executive order to ban federal contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation could have an immediate impact for close to 20 percent of the workforce, and set a precedent that may goad Congress to act to guarantee similar protections in the private sector, supporters of such a move argue. "There is more that he can do," Jon Davidson, legal director at Lambda Legal, told Reuters. "He has repeatedly said as president that it's people's job to push him to do more and more, so we intend to keep doing that."

Recent polls show a majority of Americans support marriage equality, and data on ENDA reveals similarly robust support among the public. In fact, 9 out of 10 voters surveyed in a recent poll wrongly assumed federal protections for gay and transgender employees were already in place.

While activists grow impatient with congressional inaction and the president's recent silence on ENDA amidst budget, gun control and immigration battles, Jarrett assures Reuters that Obama is dedicated to passing employment protections for gay and transgender workers: "This isn't a matter of satisfying a constituency. It's a matter of doing what's right," she said.

By Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at kmcdonough@salon.com.

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