The Senate is scheduled to vote on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act on Monday, with prospects for passage looking good. Every Democrat has signed onto the measure, and at least four Republicans have as well: Susan Collins of Maine, Mark Kirk of Illinois, Orrin Hatch of Utah, and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. That puts the vote count at 59, just one shy of the supermajority needed to get anything out of the Senate these days.
The real question isn’t whether the bill’s supporters can secure one more Republican to vote with them. It’s how many more Republicans are willing to vote for ENDA. The bill represents the party’s best chance to moderate its image with voters on social issues. That’s the reason why it’s so fraught for the undeclared.
For the most part, the intraparty battle being waged in the GOP now isn’t about principles. It’s about tactics (or willingness to recognize political reality). But ENDA really is about principle in two ways: it’s about extending the government’s reach into the workplace and its about gay rights. And that last point is still a real problem with the base.
A moderate conservative (assuming they exist) might agree that workplace discrimination is a bad idea, but still be opposed to marriage equality. But for the true believers, anything that advances the government’s recognition of LGBT people is a sin.
This is why the party gets people like Dean Young as serious candidates. If it wasn’t for hard-core homophobia, Young wouldn’t have made it into a runoff as a GOP Congressional nominee in Alabama. But there he is, as a reminder to other Republicans that the only thing they have to fear is an attack from the right.
In many ways, the ENDA vote will be symbolic, not the least reason being that it’s going nowhere in the House of Representatives. But the bigger symbolism will be what the final vote says about the party. It may reveal the fault lines between the factions. Or it could be most Republicans prefer to cave on anything that could threaten their base. In the short run, that may make sense politically, but in the long-term it just underscores why the party is stuck in a dead end.