House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Thursday she’s “optimistic” about the Equality Act and called its passage a “priority” amid expectations the House could vote on the yet-to-be-introduced measure as early as March.
Pelosi made the comments during her weekly news conference in response to a question from the Washington Blade on the timing of the floor vote for the LGBTQ legislation, which President Biden promised during his campaign to sign within his first 100 days in office.
“I’m optimistic about it because I do think we will get strong bipartisan support in the House and in the Senate,” Pelosi said.
The legislation, which Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) told the Blade he’d introduce in February, has been given new life now that Democrats control both chambers of Congress and the White House, as opposed to the Trump administration when the bill died in the Senate, as Pelosi noted.
“This is such an exciting piece of legislation for us,” Pelosi said. “We passed it in the last Congress. No success in the Senate. It went to Mitch McConnell’s graveyard, the ‘grim reaper.’”
A senior Democratic aide told the Blade that Cicilline and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), the sponsor of the bill in the Senate, are looking at the week of Feb. 22 to introduce the Equality Act with a vote expected as early as March.
Pelosi said she’s working with the two lawmakers “for when we will roll it out,” and said after that “we will calendar it.”
“It’s an early priority for us, H.R. 5,” Pelosi said. “And again, it’s about ending discrimination.”
Pelosi then shifted to praising President Biden, commending him for signing two LGBTQ executive orders within his first week in office, including a directive barring further discharges under Trump’s transgender military ban.
“I’m very pleased with what President Biden has done so far, especially pleased about eliminating the prohibition on trans people from serving in the military,” Pelosi said. “That too, I think, was a triumph for decency and justice in our country, but some other initiatives that he took about contracting and this or that.”
Although the Supreme Court decision last year in Bostock v. Clayton County extends vast protections for LGBTQ people under federal law, securing a prohibition against anti-LGBTQ discrimination in the workplace sought for decades by movement leaders, the Equality Act would take things a step further.
In addition to the explicit declaration that anti-LGBTQ discrimination is a form of sex discrimination in employment, education, housing, jury service and credit, the Equality Act would prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex and LGBTQ status in public accommodations and federal programs.
Further, the Equality Act would expand the definition of public accommodations under federal civil rights law to include retail stores, banks, transportation services, and health care services. The legislation would also establish that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act — a 1994 law aimed at protecting religious liberty — can’t be used to enable anti-LGBT discrimination.
The Equality Act was the cornerstone of President Biden’s campaign promises to LGBTQ people. Biden said he’d sign the legislation into law within his first 100 days in office as recently as October in an interview with Philadelphia Gay News, although he hasn’t commented on the bill in the week since he took office as president.
Reflecting on the absence of such protections under federal law, Pelosi continued, “It’s amazing that we would even have to do such things, but we’re particularly proud of the Equality Act because it’s so comprehensive.”
“Again, ending discrimination in the workplace and in every other aspect, not only is good for the LGBTQ community, for our whole society, but also for businesses that want the very best,” Pelosi said. “They should be hiring without any concern of complaint about the diversity that they are introducing.”
In the previous Congress, the U.S. Chamber of Congress had come out in support of the Equality Act, which Pelosi alluded to in her remarks as she contemplated passage in the Senate. The challenge is greater in that chamber given the 60-vote threshold needed to overcome a legislative filibuster.
“That’s why we think we’ll have strong bipartisan support,” Pelosi said. “We think the business community will help us in the Senate.”
Pelosi took a question from another reporter as the Blade tried to follow up with an inquiry on whether the White House has reached out to her on the legislation. Pelosi’s office didn’t immediately respond to a follow-up inquiry on whether that conversation has taken place.