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ENDA introduced in US Senate
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ENDA introduced in US Senate

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

The Senate version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) was introduced Wednesday by Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR). Like the House version introduced by Representative Barney Frank (D-MA) in June, the measure includes protections for Transgender workers.

To date, 37 Senators have signed on as co-sponsors of the legislation, including Senators Edward Kennedy (D-MA), Susan Collins (R-ME), Olympia Snowe (R-ME) and Chris Dodd (D-CT). Kennedy had been expected to be the prime sponsor of the bill, but he remains at home battling brain cancer.

"Senator Kennedy talked with his team, and felt that he wants to take key issues that he cares a lot about and pass the baton because he's not as able to be here in person in the way that he would have been here a year ago," Merkley told the Washington Blade newspaper.

Kennedy is chairman and Dodd acting chairman of the Senate's Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee, where ENDA will be referred. Whether the committee will hold hearings on ENDA - a necessary preliminary to passage - "has yet to be addressed," according to Merkley. Merkley and Washington's Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) are also members of the committee.

On the House side, the Education and Labor Committee is expected to begin hearings on Barney Franks' ENDA bill in September, after Congress returns from its August recess. HRC Legislative Director Allison Hewitt expects the House version to come to a vote in October.

Bringing ENDA to a vote in the Senate will be more complicated, however. Senate rules require that at least 60 Senators agree to close debate on a measure before it can come up for a vote. Achieving that threshold often requires amending a bill to remove provisions that some members find objectionable.

ENDA supporters fear that protections for Transgender workers might be at risk in behind-the-scenes negotiations to get the measure to a vote. Merkley, however, insists that the Trans-inclusive language will stay in the bill.

He told reporters Wednesday that his colleagues who support the bill have agreed that "discrimination is simply wrong, and that gender identity discrimination is a key part of this area. & We shouldn't be slicing and dicing different components of it."

A controversial version of ENDA passed the House of Representatives in 2007 without protections for Transgender workers. Senator Kennedy then introduced it in the Senate, but it was never scheduled for hearings.

The current Trans-inclusive ENDA bill is expected to pass the House. Merkley declined to predict whether it would pass in the Senate, although he told The Advocate magazine "it's certainly possible that this could be passed by year's end, though the [congressional] schedule is very crowded."

If it does pass, any differences in the Senate and House versions must be reconciled, and a final version presented to both houses for passage.

Merkley said the passage of hate crimes legislation in the Senate as an amendment to a Defense Department bill "raises the possibility" of a similar path for ENDA, but he added that a decision on "what pathways might be feasible" could not be made until further discussion occurs.

Merkley was elected to the US Senate in 2008, after a career as a state legislator. As Speaker of the Oregon House of Representatives in 2007 and 2008, Merkley oversaw passage of a civil rights bill outlawing discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in housing and employment, and another bill recognizing same-sex domestic partnerships.

"For me, one of the huge issues that I've cared a lot about is equality under the law and fairness to all Americans, and this was just a core part of the way I view the world," he said to reporters Wednesday.

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