Brooklyn congressman says “classic” leadership needed on LGBT goals
Anthony Weiner, a high profile Democratic congressman who represents portions of Brooklyn and Queens, believes the votes are there in the House for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), inclusive of protections based on gender identity as well as sexual orientation, sees some hope in this fall’s elections based on his view “that the only thing worse than the Democratic brand is the Republican brand,” and continues to admit that the only other job he would like is being mayor of New York.
But, in a wide-ranging discussion with Gay City News on June 8, Weiner was most provocative in his assertion that President Barack Obama has so far forged a “timid administration.”
In the wake of the president’s announcement early in June that he was extending some partner benefits to gay and lesbian federal government employees, Weiner was asked what the prospects were, in the near term, for passing the Domestic Partnership Benefits and Obligations Act — which would extend the same federal benefits to gay and lesbian couples currently available under marriage — and for repealing the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act. The Brooklyn Democrat said he doubted whether either measure would move before the November election and also took note of the limited nature of the president’s order regarding federal employees — health benefits, for example, are not generally available under the executive directive.
Weiner then turned to the political excuse that the Defense of Marriage Act provides the president for achieving only incremental advances at best on LGBT partnership and family recognition.
“DOMA becomes a sort of all-purpose cloak for a timid administration,” he said. “Yeah, we want to do more, but there’s DOMA.”
Asked directly whether he considered Obama’s team “timid,” Weiner replied, “Yes.”
The congressman also cited the public discourse that ensued when the White House announced last month it had struck a compromise for allowing the House and Senate to adopt a plan for ending Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell even though a Pentagon Working Group has not yet completed its study of how to implement such a policy change. A day after the compromise was made public, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Admiral Michael Mullen, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, announced their grudging acceptance of Congress’ intentions, but some of the individual service chiefs offered dissents.
“Members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff sent a letter three days before the fucking vote, and you’re the president of the United States,” Weiner said. “That’s insubordination. There was one hand clapping. It would be akin to the president of the United States announcing he supports school vouchers and the secretary of Education sending a letter three days before the vote to say, ‘Oh no, don’t do that.’”
Weiner, who was a persistent critic of the administration for not pushing harder for a public option in the healthcare reform legislation enacted earlier this year, said Obama is too often reluctant to lead on critical issues.
“I think the president wants to do the right thing, but I think there is too much of a tendency in this administration to leave it to the legislators to do the right thing,” he said. “The president talks about using political capital to get things done, but he’s asking Congress to get it done.”
Weiner noted the success two weeks earlier in winning Senate Armed Services Committee and full House approval of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell compromise, but also argued that moving the broader LGBT agenda will require assertive presidential leadership.
“We’re in a good moment now, so I don’t want to piss on anything,” he said. “I will say that there is this general sense out there that he is not prepared to lead in the classic sense. He says, ‘Okay, there are 218 votes, I’ll sign it.’ This is one of those issues that you need leadership on.”
Despite his critique of the administration on LGBT issues, Weiner is confident that Speaker Nancy Pelosi is committed to pushing ENDA through the House prior to November, and prepared to withstand any effort on the floor by Republicans to kill the measure by offering poison-pill amendments. Some advocates fear that opponents will seek to stir concerns about the inclusion of language protecting transgender Americans, thereby fracturing the majority out gay Massachusetts Democrat Barney Frank has worked to build.
Weiner, who voted no on ENDA in 2007 rather than support the measure after the gender identity language was stripped out, does not see that concession by the House Democratic leadership being made again this year.
“I am convinced having spoken to Nancy personally and Barney personally, and I think there was a lesson learned last time,” he said of the elimination of the transgender protections. “I think she is committed, and I know Barney is.”
Asked whether he saw the Senate ready to step up to support a fully inclusive ENDA, Weiner said, “A stiff wind coming across the Capitol causes problems for the Senate these days, so you never know.” Politically, however, he said that if Republican opponents of ENDA decide to filibuster the bill, “I don’t think it will be over transgender inclusion.”
Weiner, who for several months had been a leading advocate for ending the ban on any gay man sexually active since 1977 giving blood, continued to voice optimism that the federal Department of Health and Human Services would act to modify or eliminate the policy, which has also come under fire from leading experts, including the American Red Cross. Just three days later, however, the HHS Committee on Blood Safety and Availability voted narrowly against any change to the policy, agreeing only to the position that the current practice is “sub-optimal” and that a report should be prepared to distinguish between high-risk and low-risk gay male donors.
Weiner had suggested that, absent action by HHS, Congress might take up the issue through legislation.