President Barack Obama announced Monday that he’s moving forward with an executive order barring federal contractors from discriminating against employees based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
The decision marked a huge victory for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, which had been pushing for such action for years. But judging by the reaction from Republican lawmakers, you’d think nothing happened at all.
Not a single member of GOP leadership in the House or the Senate had anything to say about the president’s forthcoming order. Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), confirmed that the office had not issued a statement. Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), had no comment. A request for comment from the conservative House Republican Study Committee was not returned.
The executive order would only apply to federal contractors and doesn’t carry the punch of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, a bill stalled in Congress that would make it illegal for employers nationwide to fire or harass someone for being LGBT. Nevertheless, when issues like these have been debated in the past, they often have engendered primal screams from ideologues on each side of the debate. As The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent noted, when an similar order was issued in 1998, Republicans mobilized quickly to block funds from being used to implement it.
This time, however, cultural conservatives appear to be fighting the battle without the help of elected Republicans.
Some conservative groups say they are counting on their allies on Capitol Hill to speak up.
“Once the executive order is public, we expect conservative lawmakers to address it,” said Carrie Gordon Earll, senior director of public policy at Focus on the Family. “In the meantime, there should be a considerable amount of ‘pushback’ from the Hill or the president [will end up] advancing ENDA rather than an executive order.”
But increasingly, GOP operatives are ignoring such advice, wary about waging culture wars that seem at once dated and sure-fire political losers, or simply in agreement with the administration. A former Mitt Romney campaign aide told The Huffington Post that it’s no surprise that congressional Republican leadership is muted after the Obama administration’s announcement.
“The White House doesn’t seem to grasp how completely uninterested GOP is in fighting on this stuff,” the aide said. “They could mandate gay marriages for everyone right now and you probably wouldn’t see a press release.”
There were, in fact, a handful of Republican lawmakers who issued press releases. But those who did — namely, Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) — didn’t protest the impending executive order. Rather, they urged the president to accommodate religious institutions.
Where GOP lawmakers were acquiescent, socially conservative groups remained vigilant. Ralph Reed, who heads the Faith and Freedom Coalition, said he was “not especially” bothered by the silence from elected Republicans due to his confidence that, should ENDA come to the House floor, it would go down in defeat at the hands of Republicans.
“We [have] had the votes in the House to defeat ENDA and the overwhelming majority of Republicans in the Senate voted with us,” Reed told The Huffington Post. “They are on record on this, and there will be no shortage of opportunities to make that clear.”
But Reed’s statement on the executive order didn’t focus so much on the idea that sexual orientation would be protected in the federal workforce — once anathema in religious conservative circles — as much as it did on the president circumventing the legislative branch.
“It’s just another example of Obama attempting to achieve by regulatory or executive fiat what he is unwilling or unable to achieve legislatively,” Reed said. “Like immigration reform, same-sex marriage, climate change and the regulation of political speech (in the case of this administration by the IRS), Obama has shown a predilection for executive action that raise the specter of an imperial presidency. Obama could not pass ENDA in Congress, so he now seeks to impose it on the nation with the stroke of a pen.”
Reed’s assessment of the level of GOP opposition to ENDA may not be keeping pace with changing attitudes on LGBT issues. In 2007, the last time the House voted on ENDA, the legislation failed to make it to the president’s desk. But last fall, the latest ENDA bill passed the Senate and is now only stalled in the House because Boehner won’t allow a vote. In the meantime, the bill picked up its eighth House Republican co-sponsor last week. Even some Senate conservatives have been open to supporting ENDA and the accompanying executive order.
“I need to look at it,” Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) told The Huffington Post earlier this year, when asked about possibly supporting executive action on LGBT workplace discrimination. He was one of 10 Senate Republicans who voted to pass ENDA.
“Maybe I’m wrong,” Portman added, “but I think there’s a chance that [ENDA] could get some support among Republicans in the House.”