Sen. Jeff Merkley

  • April 25, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Once again lawmakers in Congress have introduced legislation intended to advance equality for LGBT people, this time with a few more Republicans on board and in an atmosphere of heightened public support.

    The Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) would prohibit employers from discriminating against people based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. As noted earlier this week, other variations of ENDA have languished in past congressional sessions. But the effort – to outlaw employment discrimination of LGBT people – is integral to advancing equality. The U.S. Supreme Court is considering cases involving marriage equality and nine states and the District of Columbia recognize same-sex marriages. Rhode Island and Delaware state lawmakers are considering legislation to allow same-sex couples to wed. (Rhode Island’s Senate has approved a marriage equality bill.)

    So while there has been positive movement on marriage equality -- though a setback could be forthcoming depending on the how the Roberts Court handles the cases before it – efforts to bar employment discrimination against LGBT persons have seen more mixed results. As the ACLU notes more than 30 states include laws that fail to provide LGBT people solid protection from employment discrimination.

    But Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) in a press statement announcing the introduction of ENDA sounded an upbeat note, saying that “bipartisan coalitions” in both chambers are supporting the measure. Merkley’s statement concludes, “In a sign of the growing momentum to end discrimination against LGBT Americans, the Senate sponsors expect the Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee” to take action on the legislation in this Congress.

    The ACLU, Lambda Legal, the National Center for Lesbian Rights and the Transgender Law Center issued a statement today concluding, in part, that in a “country that values fairness and equal treatment under the law, we believe the current situation is unacceptable.” That situation centers on the fact that there remain far too many states without protections against employment discrimination of LGBT people.

  • April 25, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Last year, Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) took to the Senate floor to bemoan his Republican colleagues’ ongoing use of the filibuster to block or greatly delay the president’s nominations to executive branch agencies, the federal bench, and to defeat consideration of legislation.

    Reid then praised some of the senators who have been pushing for filibuster reform, such as Sens. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.). The plan, in part, would force senators to work harder to sustain a filibuster. Merkley calls it a “talking filibuster.” In a press release, Merkley explains how his proposed changes would blunt the use of the filibuster. (Sen. Merkley is one of the featured speakers at the 2013 ACS National Convention in June.)

    As it stands now Republicans have crafted a new norm of requiring a supermajority to end debate and allow up-or-down votes on legislation and nominations. The compromise gun bill was killed because of this new norm, though some wobbly pundits suggested the president was at fault. Indeed the late Bob Edgar blasted the use of the filibuster as essentially shutting the place down and his group lodged a lawsuit to force reform of the procedural tool.

    At the start of the 113th Congress, Merkley and other senators urged a simple majority vote to change the Senate’s rules on the filibuster. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), said “a revolution has occurred in the Senate in recent years. Never before was it accepted that a 60 vote threshold was required for everything. This did not occur through Constitutional Amendment or through a great public debate. Rather, because of the abuse of the filibuster, the minority party – the party the American people did not want to govern – has assumed for itself absolute and virtually unchecked veto power over all legislation, any executive branch nominee, no matter how insignificant the position, and over all judges, no matter how uncontroversial.” 

  • January 24, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    The momentum for serious reform to the filibuster picked up steam last year after Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) expressed great frustration over Republicans abuse of the legislative tool. Reid had faced nearly 400 filibusters since leading the Senate and admitted he was slow to embrace filibuster reform. Reid claimed he was finally ready to support serious reform proposals championed by Sens. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.).

    But it now appears Reid is ready to suffer ongoing Republican obstructionism in the Senate. TPM’s Sahil Kapur reports that Reid is nearing a deal with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-K.Y.) “to enact minor changes to the filibuster.”

    The deal, Kapur reports would make “very modest changes,” such as permitting the “majority to bypass a filibuster on the motion to proceed to debate – if a group of senators on each side agree or if there’s a guarantee that both sides will bet to offer amendments ….”

    According to Kapur, however, the only “meaningful upside” of the agreement centers on nominations – apparently part of the deal would include “an expedited process for some nominations ….”

    The filibuster has been used to scuttle dozens of judicial nominations, which have helped lead to a high vacancy rate on the federal bench. The filibuster, however, has also been used to shut down consideration of an array of progressive measures, such as ones addressing pay inequity, immigration reform and climate change.

    In a Jan. 21 editorial, The New York Times raised concerns that on the cusp “an opportunity to end much of this delay and abuse, Democrats are instead considering only a few half-measures.” The Times highlighted reform proposals advanced by Merkley and Udall, which would require senators to take action to mount and sustain a filibuster. It would require senators bent on slowing consideration of legislation or nominations to actually announce their reason for doing so, and then continue explaining those reasons. As the newspaper noted the proposal would kill the “current practice of routinely requiring a 60-vote majority for a bill through a silent objection ….”

  • January 15, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    As Salon’s Steve Kornacki persuasively argues, Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is a friend of the National Rifle Association, likely helping to kill any meaningful gun control legislation.

    Kornacki notes that Reid recently told Nevada reporters that he is not supporting any of the reforms expected to be put forth by the administration (The New York Times reports that Vice President Joe Biden has identified 19 executive orders the president could issue to advance gun safety) and essentially “pronounced the assault weapons ban dead ….”

    Kornacki continues:

    Not only is there steep resistance in the Republican-controlled House, but the Senate also includes a number of Democrats like Reid from pro-gun states who would rather not go on record voting for a new ban.

    In stating that he won’t consider legislation that doesn’t stand a chance in the House, Reid appears to be giving pro-gun Senate Democrats an opportunity to duck the question.

    Beyond providing cover to “pro-gun Senate Democrats,” Reid now appears to be wavering on filibuster reform. Last year, Reid took to the Senate floor to bemoan his lack of support for filibuster reform and said he favored reform measures advocated by several Democratic senators.

  • December 13, 2012

    by Jeremy Leaming

    With Republicans seemingly hell-bent on tossing the country over the so-called fiscal cliff, showing no signs of agreeing to tax hikes on the nation’s superrich, and continuing their strategy of obstructionism polling shows that a majority of Americans support filibuster reform.

    Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-K.Y.) embraced obstructionism during President Obama’s first term, saying his party’s top priority was to ensure Obama did not serve a second one. McConnell, however, is still set on obstructionism and not surprisingly arguing that the Constitution forbids the Senate from altering its procedures by majority vote.

    A bipartisan group of law professors – including former Reagan solicitor general Charles Fried and a former conservative federal judge Michael W. McConnell – in a Dec. 12 letter to senators says McConnell is wrong. (The letter can be read here – thanks to the Brennan Center For Justice).

    “When a newly-elected Congress convenes,” the letter states, “the newly-constituted Senate, like the newly-elected House, can invoke its constitutional rulemaking authority to make changes to the Standing Rules. At that time, a majority of the new Senate can choose to reject or amend an existing rule.”