Friday, February 12, 2010

WTF Is Going on in Congress and How to Use ACT On Principles to "Whip It" into Shape

by Kathy Drasky

Two other workshops I attended at the NGLTF Creating Change conference in Dallas went hand in hand for grassroots activists.

"WTF Is Going on in Congress" is self-explanatory -- the packed room wanted to know exactly "WTF" is up with bills that will move our equal rights forward: Don't Ask Don't Tell (DADT), the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), the Respect for Marriage Act, and of course the Uniting American Families Act (UAFA).

We were asked to step outside of this LGBT legislation for a moment and consider the the health care reform bill. Basically, all subsequent LGBT legislation is riding on its passage. If we get this all-important reform bill through, it will set the stage for reform in America in general -- and that reform includes both LGBT equality measures as well as immigration reform. Everyone on hand agreed -- if the general scene for "reform" is not set now in America, it will be 20(!) years before a next real call for reform in America will occur.

As I pointed out in earlier posts from Creating Change (see below), a major theme called for by both NGLTF Executive Director Rea Carey and keynote speaker Thomas Saenz, President and General Counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) is that the LGBT and immigrant communities need to come together to create a powerful coalition -- an "I'll have your back if you have mine" political strategy. This means not only do we -- the LGBT community support immigration reform for all immigrants (not just those of us calling for UAFA for our own families) but that the immigrant community get behind LGBT equality. Together we can form a coalition that stands up to those who call themselves Americans, but behave in a way that defies everything our Constitution spells out as American.

Obviously, UAFA is the bill that can link our communities -- and that's where we, the activists and members of Out4Immigration need to take a lead, working with immigrant rights' groups in our communities to get them to support us, while we, as LGBT people also talk to our families and friends about how important it is that they support Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CIR).

The Senate will be driving CIR (since the House drove health care) -- and the continued delay from the Schumer camp needs to be seen as an effort to make sure this bill is inclusive. Schumer is working with Lindsay Graham (R-SC) on the legislation, but backroom chatter is that another Republican senator may be being brought into the discussions.

Julie Kruse, Policy Director from Immigration Equality, who talked about UAFA on this panel indicated that the bill Schumer and the Republicans come out with may be a "very basic and pared down" bill, yet one that is "very broad" and includes LGBT immigration rights for same-sex binational couples and our families. There is still no reason to think that the bill won't include us. Julie referenced all the things Tom Saenz talked about on the Friday panel on LGBT immigration rights.

It was agreed by all the panelists that ENDA and DADT were the two "hot button" issues of the moment, and if either ENDA passed soon or DADT was repealed, other LGBT bills and equality measures would have a much easier time. Once a member of Congress is on record supporting one LGBT issue, they are identified as our "friend". By supporting just one LGBT issue, the extreme right-wing puts them in their "enemy" category, which makes it much easier for this Representative or Senator to support additional LGBT legislation down the line -- they've already lost the hard-core right-wing base vote.

Which brings me to let you know about this great online Wiki that tracks our friends and foes in Congress and the status of our bills: ACT On Principles' Public Whip Count. This handy tool tracks co-sponsors of UAFA, RFA, ENDA, DOMA and DADT repeals in the House and Senate and other LGBT and LGBT-friendly legislation. In addition to co-sponsors whose support we know we have, it also tracks those who are "leaning yes" in our favor or "leaning no".

The ACT On Principles session at Creating Change was a great chance to learn how to use the Wiki and their site, as well as hear from the founders whose inside tip to working on getting support for our legislation was "to focus on those leaning 'no' -- as everyone knows those 'leaning yes' can be counted on as 'yes' votes".

Currently UAFA has 118 co-sponsors and 80 "leaning yes" for a total of 198 yes votes in the House. This is not enough, and we need to focus on those 207 "leaning no's".

Bloggers and webmasters out there interested in putting the ACT On Principles Public Whip Count on their site can easily embed their widget (we did!). And, by signing up as a member, you can add in info you come across in your grassroots work that indicates any member of Congress's status on a particular piece of legislation that affects our community. ACT On Principles strives for "full disclosure and transparency" -- so instead of saying "WTF Is Going on in Congress" we can keep daily tabs on how we make change.

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