First off, let’s give credit where it’s due. Seven Republican Senators made a statement to their party yesterday by voting to advance the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. By supporting the measure, the Senators signaled that the party can move in a new direction, away from the politics of division, into the 21st century.
So let’s credit the Senators supporting ENDA: Kelly Ayotte, Susan Collins, Orrin Hatch, Dean Heller, Mark Kirk, Lisa Murkowski (absent for the vote, but on record for the bill), Rob Portman, and Pat Toomey. Kirk, in particular, deserves a shout out for giving a speech on the Senate floor for the first time since he suffered a stroke last year.
So much for the good news,
As much as the eight Senators deserve credit for their support it’s worth noting that six of them come from states that could just as easily elect a Democrat as a Republican. Only two of the eight–Murkowski and Hatch–come from traditionally conservative states. Murkowski is a renegade, of sorts; having survived a Tea Party challenge as a write-in candidate, she seems more open to change, including support for marriage equality. Hatch is an interesting character, and his vote is significant because as the Senator from Utah, he’s also the Senator for the Mormon Church.
But the folks jockeying to be the future of the party all voted against ENDA: Rand Paul, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. Paul wants to add a poison pill to the measure, by attaching a right-to-work (aka anti-union) amendment to ENDA. Cruz is actively courting the religious right this week, while Rubio continues to sink to new levels of lameness by recycling tired rhetoric about small business “burdens” and “frivolous lawsuits.”
Meanwhile, the tail wagging the party dog continues to fight the 1990 culture wars. The Heritage Action Fund, the influential PAC driving ideological purity in the party, said anyone voting for ENDA would get a negative mark on its legislative scorecard. The religious right turned out in the halls of Congress to fight the bill as well, floating the usual bizarre canards, including the idea that Christian bookstores would be forced to hire drag queens. (It might do wonders for sales, though.)
All of this at a time when most major corporations in the U.S. have expressed their support for nondiscrimination protections and most Americans have moved so far passed the issue that they are already onto embracing marriage equality.
ENDA was a relatively easy way for Republicans to moderate their image. Most of corporate America is fine with it, and eight out of ten Americans already think it’s the law. It’s about as non-controversial an LGBT issue as the party will ever confront.
Still, that’s not enough. If nothing else, the ENDA vote shows that most Republicans are more comfortable being caught in a dead end than they are trying to find a new path forward. That doesn’t bode well for 2016—unless you’re a Democrat.