How Important are Gay Rights to President Obama?

Is it important enough to ban discrimination by executive order?

U.S. President Barack Obama
President Obama just increased the minimum wage for federal contractors by executive fiat. Why not do the same thing in banning discrimination based on sexual orientation?

Photo by Larry Downing/Reuters

As the White House prepares to host French President François Hollande for a rare state dinner on Tuesday, here are three questions to start the week:

1. Where do gay rights rank among President Obama’s priorities? Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the federal government will soon treat married same-sex couples the same as heterosexual couples when they file for bankruptcy, testify in court, or visit family in prison. Now the question is whether the president will take the next step in his support of equality, issuing an executive order that would ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity among federal contractors. After all, he just increased the minimum wage for federal contractors by executive fiat. Why not do the same thing here? With the minimum wage, the administration had to wedge its policy within the statutory limits of executive authority. An administration aide says that’s not the impediment in this case. The president has the authority, he’d just prefer that the House move on the issue by passing the Employee Nondiscrimination Act, which has already passed the Senate. If they don’t, the president might act.

But where does this rank among his other policy priorities? That will determine how the president may want to sequence the move among all the other executive actions his administration will take. Some, like the EPA restricting emissions on power plants, will be politically volatile, increasing the heat he will take for exceeding his executive authority. Is the president willing to have a big fight over the legality of changing the discrimination provision while he is preparing for other big fights? Or does he want to make the announcement later in the election cycle, using the lack of congressional action by Republicans to remind Democrats why they should turn out on Election Day for members of their party? 

2. Did Boehner’s “hot stove” theory work? The question isn’t whether Congress will vote to raise the debt ceiling but how. In days gone by, conservatives would have used the vote to strong-arm concessions from the president. In 2011, the House exacted more than $2.4 trillion in spending cuts over 10 years. But since that high-water mark Republicans have been less effective getting their pound of flesh. The president refuses to negotiate and Republican leaders don’t want to risk default for fear of getting the blame for wrecking the economy. A CNN/ORC International poll released Feb. 3 found that 54 percent of Americans would blame Republicans if the debt ceiling isn’t raised, while 29 percent would blame the president. Business leaders are warning that even approaching the limit will rattle the already jittery economy. Even those in the GOP conference who normally agitate are on board. “I do not want to get into a cataclysmic fight,” says Idaho Rep. Raul Labrador. Michele Bachmann said something similar. 

This retreat is also a validation of Boehner’s leadership. In the fall, conservatives pushed the House Speaker into a confrontation that led to the government shutdown. At the time, Boehner believed in the “hot stove” theory. If conservatives were allowed to follow their plan, they would take the blame for shuttering the government and that would discourage them from bootless brinkmanship in the future. It’s worked. Since the government shutdown, Republicans have voted for a debt ceiling increase, a budget agreement, and an omnibus appropriations bill without much fuss. In the past, all three could have been vehicles for showdowns.

So will Republicans simply vote to raise the debt limit and move on or will they try to win something for their side from the exercise? Efforts to use the vote to force the president to approve construction of the Keystone pipeline and change provisions in the Affordable Care Act have been shelved. There is some talk about trying to find popular measures that will pressure Democrats—such as restoring recently trimmed veterans’ pension benefits or stopping the mandatory cuts to Medicare doctors—but Democrats say they don’t like the way Republicans want to pay for those measures. Who will be under greater pressure? Democrats resisting Republican efforts to sign on to a couple popular measures or Republicans still trying to avoid being pinned as the reason Washington doesn’t work?

3. Did Sen. Chuck Schumer call Boehner’s bluff? House Speaker John Boehner said his conference couldn’t move forward on immigration reform because they didn’t trust the president. (We assessed that claim, and the future of immigration reform, here if you’d like to read it.) Sen. Schumer responded on Meet the Press. OK, said the New York senator, we’ll just delay the implementation of the bill until after President Obama is out of office. He called Boehner’s bluff by exposing the speaker’s comment for what it is—a fig leaf that tries to hide the biggest impediment to reform, which is his party’s own disagreement about how to proceed. (On immigration, the trust hurdle isn’t just about not trusting Obama; it’s about not trusting anyone to keep the promise of tougher border security in exchange for accommodating those already in the United States illegally.)

But how does Schumer’s bluff call play out? Does it eviscerate Boehner’s claim and expose Republicans as not really wanting to do anything serious on immigration? Or, by pretending to treat it seriously, does it give Republicans another opportunity to talk about their lack of trust in the president? And which discussion helps more in an election year? Are there more voters angry about their lack of trust in the president than there are voters angry the GOP won’t move on immigration? And, if immigration reform is delayed, does the GOP really want to have a bloody immigration fight in 2015 when its candidates are jockeying for president?