Every two years, a new class of U.S. senators assumes the duties of the office. For the first time in U.S. history, the new class includes an openly gay member – Democrat Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin.
Baldwin, after serving in the U.S. House since 1999, took her oath in the Senate on Jan. 3. Meanwhile, in the U.S. House, six out gay members – a record – were sworn into office. Openly gay U.S. Reps. Jared Polis of Colorado and David Cicilline of Rhode Island were joined by gay Reps. Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, Sean Patrick Maloney of New York and Mark Takano of California and bisexual Rep. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.
The out representatives, all of them Democrats, serve in the minority party – there are 233 Republicans and 200 Democrats in the House. The freshman class of 84 also includes the first Hindu elected to Congress, Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, and the first Buddhist, Asian-American woman and Japanese-born citizen, Mazie Hirono of Hawaii.
Baldwin, assigned to committee seats on health, education, labor and pensions; budget; homeland security and aging, serves in the majority party – there are 53 Democrats, 45 Republicans and two independents in the Senate. The 12-member freshmen class is made up of three Republicans, eight Democrats and one independent.
Baldwin, in addition to being the first openly gay person elected to the Senate, is the first woman elected to the Senate from Wisconsin.
One of the first orders of business in the House was to select its leadership. John Boehner was re-elected House Speaker with 220 votes, only three more than the number required.
And initial House votes included a controversial rules package that authorized the House legal team, known as the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group, to keep paying outside counsel to defend the Defense of Marriage Act in court. Republican lawmakers have spent at least $1.5 million to defend the act, the subject of a Supreme Court challenge this year.
Evan Wolfson, of the Freedom to Marry advocacy group, said, “It’s truly disheartening that, on a day of new beginnings on Capitol Hill, the leadership of the House of Representatives is advancing a measure … to continue spending taxpayer dollars on expensive lawyers to defend the so-called Defense of Marriage Act in court. …It’s past time for the Republican leadership to listen to their constituents, a majority of whom support the freedom to marry and stop wasting precious resources in an effort to treat fellow Americans as second-class citizens.”
On Jan. 4, the new Congress held a joint session to count the electoral votes for the 2012 presidential election, which returned Barack Obama to the White House for another four years.
The 57th presidential inauguration takes place on Jan. 21, the day after a private swearing-in ceremony at the White House. Four former presidents – Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush – will serve as honorary co-chairs. The inaugural theme is “Faith in America’s Future.”
“Our nation has faced countless challenges throughout its history, and each time we have come together as Americans and moved forward with renewed strength,” said U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, chair of the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies. “During the 57th presidential inauguration, Americans from across the country will gather beneath the Capitol Dome to celebrate our history, take measure of how far we have come and look towards our future with hope and determination.”
Civil rights advocates are focusing on a number of measures they want to advance in the 113th Congress, including banning workplace discrimination against LGBT people, repealing the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act and enacting policies to curb anti-LGBT harassment in schools and protect bi-national same-sex couples from deportations.
However, with the partisan divides in the House and Senate – and extended use of the filibuster – civil rights advances over the next two years are more likely to take place within the Obama administration and federal agencies than courtesy of Congress.
A report from the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force shows that over the past four years an actively pro-LGBT administration has “reaped more successes in securing equal access to federal programs and benefits for the LGBT community than during any other period in United States history.”
During Obama’s first term substantial change came with administration initiatives on housing, health care, education and justice. NGLTF, in its paper, concluded, “It is undeniable the last four years have been the most successful in advancing LGBT priorities at the federal level.… It is entirely possible, given candidate Romney’s posture in both the primary and general elections, that this progress would have been halted, or possibly reversed, if he had been elected.”
LGBT civil rights advocates will lobby the new Congress for passage of the:
• Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would extend federal employment discrimination protections to include sexual orientation and gender identity and prohibit employers, employment agencies and labor unions from using sexual orientation or gender identity as the basis for employment decisions.
• Family Leave Insurance Act, which would grant essential benefits to working families by providing 12 weeks of paid family medical leave coverage to employees seeking to take leave to care for their families, including leave to care for a domestic partner and children in a same-sex household.
• Safe Schools Improvement Act, which would amend the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to require federally-funded schools and districts to adopt codes of conduct prohibiting bullying and harassment, including on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. The bill also would require that states report data on bullying and harassment to the U.S. Department of Education and that the department provide data to Congress.
Photo: Cliff Owen/AP
Vice President Joe Biden administers the Senate Oath to Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., during a swearing-in ceremony on Capitol Hill on Jan. 3, as the 113th Congress officially began.
• The Respect for Marriage Act, which would repeal the Defense of Marriage Act and restore the rights of all lawfully married same-sex couples to receive the benefits of marriage under federal law. The bill also provides same-sex couples with certainty that federal benefits and protections would flow from a valid marriage celebrated in a state where such marriages are legal, even if a couple moved or traveled to another state.
• Tyler Clementi Higher Education Anti-Harassment Act, which would require colleges and universities receiving federal student aid funding to prohibit harassment and to establish a grant program to support campus anti-harassment programs.
• Uniting American Families Act, which would amend the Immigration and Nationality Act to include same-sex partners as “family” for issues related to immigrant visas and green cards.