WASHINGTON – The Senate will consider legislation on gay rights, jobs and defense policy by Thanksgiving, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) announced Monday while telling the Republican-led House to dispense with "political show votes and start legislating."
Reid outlined the ambitious agenda for the month ahead – which also includes a possibly renewed showdown over pending executive branch nominations – as he opened the first Senate session since lawmakers approved the compromise deal to reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling on Oct. 16.
At the top of the list is the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, known as ENDA, which would prohibit discrimination in the workplace based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Under current federal law, employers cannot discriminate on the basis of race, religion, gender, national origin, age or disability. According to advocates of the bill, 21 states and the District of Columbia extend the prohibition to include sexual orientation, while 16 states and the District of Columbia include gender identity.
The bill was approved by a Senate committee in July, with three Republicans joining Democrats to advance the measure. The bill would need the support of at least five Republicans to overcome a potential filibuster, if all Democrats and independents support it.
Reid said the Senate would also consider the National Defense Authorization Act, which sets spending levels and policies for defense and national security programs. The bill advanced by the Senate Armed Services Committee and a House-passed measure include new policies meant to combat sexual assault in the military. The Senate version also restores funding for programs that were subject to the across-the-board cuts dictated by the so-called sequester.
Months after a last-minute agreement to approve stalled Cabinet nominations prevented a threatened Democratic attempt to change the Senate filibuster rules, Reid said he would again seek to hold confirmation votes on a number of other pending administration choices, including Rep. Melvin Watt (D-N.C.) to be the top regulator for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Republicans have resisted the nomination, arguing President Obama’s choice is not qualified to lead the complex Federal Housing Finance Agency. Republicans have supported acting director Edward J. DeMarco, who has blocked several efforts by the administration to use the agency’s authority more aggressively in combating foreclosures.
"Obstruction has reared its ugly head" again, Reid said. "In the wake of a Republican government shutdown, the nation is watching for a sign the Senate can function efficiently and normally."
The White House joined Reid in urging an up-or-down vote on Watt’s nomination. Senior administration officials met with house and financial industry leaders Monday to make clear that Watt’s confirmation was "a top White House priority," spokeswoman Amy Brundage said.
One nomination vote scheduled for Monday night was postponed because not all senators had returned to Washington. Reid warned his colleagues that they should expect such votes routinely in the next month and that absences would not be tolerated.
"If we’re going to finish our work in this four-week period we’ll have to work," Reid said, adding that it would allow lawmakers to avoid working during the traditional Thanksgiving and Christmas recesses. "We’ll work on Mondays and Fridays" – when the Senate often does not hold full workdays – and "I hope we don’t have to do weekends but we’ve got to get this work done."
Though the Senate was only now returning to work, Reid took note of the limited schedule of the Republican-led House for the remainder of the year: just 18 days scheduled. The House met last week for two days while the Senate remained on recess, approving a major water projects bill. It will have two full working days this week, with two House committees continuing their investigations of the problematic rollout of the Affordable Care Act.
House and Senate budget negotiators will meet Wednesday for their first full working session. But the House will then recess until after Veterans Day.
Reid said that House Speaker John A. Boehner’s insistence on adhering to the so-called Hastert Rule, by only bringing bills to a vote if they have the support of most Republican members, has stalled progress on immigration reform, the farm bill and jobs legislation. It also was at the root of a shutdown he again said was caused by "tea party extremists."
"Moderate Republicans have been complicit in allowing this disturbing trend to continue," Reid said. "As a conference committee sits down to negotiate a long-term budget agreement … moderate Republicans must not absent themselves."
Rory Cooper, a spokesman for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), responded that the Senate "spent last week and this week doing absolutely nothing on the floor," while the House "is considering and passing bipartisan bills to create jobs, build infrastructure and reduce regulation."
"Sen. Reid should really get focused on the countless job-creating bills he has stalled in the do-nothing Senate," he said.