The Senate's partisan balance will move a tick to the left Thursday, when Cory Booker takes his seat as the 55th member of the Democratic caucus. And the New Jersey newcomer looks increasingly likely to make a bit of history befitting his national profile only a few days later, by providing an essential vote to advance the most important civil rights bill of the decade. Legislation that would prohibit workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity is on the cusp of securing a filibuster-crushing supermajority of 60 senators -- close enough that proponents are ready to call the question.
Back in July, the Senate's Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee easily approved the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), 15 to 7. Since then, however, there's been little action -- Congress was out in August, and by September, the prospect of a government shutdown and/or debt-ceiling crisis dominated the landscape.
But with the crises having past, at least for now, senators are once again returning to the issue.
New Jersey's Cory Booker (D) will be sworn in on Thursday, and by Roll Call's count, that will bring the total number of ENDA supporters in the chamber to 56, including a handful of Republicans.
That wouldn't be quite enough to overcome a far-right filibuster, but proponents believe a lobbying push can secure the remaining support necessary to overcome obstructionism and allow the Senate to vote up or down on the proposal. Indeed, the lobbying campaign will reportedly focus on Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), Dean Heller (R-Nev.), Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), Dan Coats (R-Ind.), and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.). Flake voted for a previous version of ENDA in the House several years ago, and Portman, who has an openly gay son, has endorsed marriage equality.
In case anyone's forgotten, ENDA is tough to argue against. A lot of Americans don't know this, but under existing law, gay people can be fired from their jobs simply because of their sexual orientation. Discrimination on the basis of race, gender, or religion is illegal, but an employer could walk up to a gay employee this afternoon, declare, "I don't like gay people so you're fired," and there's literally nothing in federal law to prevent this happening.
ENDA would prohibit this form of discrimination.
As a rule, when Republicans balk at the issue, they tend to say this is an issue that should be left to the states -- they don't endorse employment discrimination, the argument goes, but it's not an issue the federal government should address.
The counter-argument is pretty straightforward: if you're a policymaker comfortable with federal anti-discrimination laws to protect women and minority groups, then you have no reason to oppose ENDA. Either you're willing to tolerate employment discrimination or you're not.
Expect Senate action on ENDA within the week. The odds of success in the Republican-led House would obviously be far more difficult, but proponents appear to be taking a one-chamber-at-a-time approach.