Earlier this week, I got invited to attend an on-the-record briefing with Assistant to the President and Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council Melody Barnes. Let’s just say, I don’t get invited to many White House events these days. Although, we were asked to cover the cocktail party last week, but I don’t do cocktail parties. But, this was the first briefing with LGBT media by a high-ranking Obama administration official, so I RSVP’d yes.
Last night, I touched base with Pam Spaulding and confirmed that she’d be attending, too. So, after her flight arrived, Pam spent the morning with Petey and me.
Besides Pam and me, there were seven other LGBT media types at the briefing: Lou Chibarro from the Washington Blade, Kerry Eleveld from the Advocate, Chris Geidner from MetroWeekly, Jillian Weiss from Bilerico, Lisa Keen from Keen News Service, Paul Schindler from Gay City News and Jen Colletta from Philadelphia Gay News. We met with Barnes in the Department of War Suite in the Old Executive Office Building. (Apparently, the Roosevelt Room in the West Wing was booked.)
Barnes gave introductory remarks, focusing on the Hate Crimes law (clearly, people in the administration think they should get more credit for passing that law. Any advocate who led them to believe that it would be considered a top accomplishment was giving the administration bad info.) She also noted the that the administration was using its executive authority. She noted that the administration has “taken more steps and made more progress” than any previous administrations. (Okay, this is clearly a key talking point — and it’s true. But, it’s not like there’s been a lot of competition. And, it’s 2010. Not 1993.)
Each person got to ask an initial question, which covered the spectrum of LGBT issues. I can’t exactly say that I heard anything new today. You should all know that the President supports ENDA and the repeal of DOMA. Yep. When pushed on ENDA, Barnes told us that “[Hill] leadership will have to decide how they’re going to use floor time.” So, the message is that only Congress can do it. Interestingly, last week, during that LGBT cocktail party, the President said:
We are pushing hard to pass an inclusive employee non-discrimination bill. (Applause.) No one in America should be fired because they’re gay. It’s not right, it’s not who we are as Americans, and we are going to put a stop to it.
But, after today, I’m still not sure who he is “pushing hard.” Because, moving ahead is squarely up to Capitol Hill, according to Barnes.
Kerry Eleveld asked if the President was going to move beyond his support for “separate, but equal” fixes. So, again, The President has consistently called for repeal of DOMA. Okay. He’s called for it — consistently. And, he thinks it is “discriminatory.” (Unclear who he’s calling consistently, but whatever.) When Kerry asked if Obama still supported civil unions, which she pointed out was still a “separate, but equal” institution adding “I’m wondering if at any point he’s ever going to embrace full equality rather than these smaller steps.” Barnes responded, I understand what you’re saying, but that’s the course that he has set forth.” That, of course, means Obama doesn’t support full equality. (Note to Obama reelection campaign: Marriage equality will be the litmus test in 2012. Between now and then, you’re going to have to deal with several federal court cases, including at least two on DOMA and the CA Prop. 8 case. The President is going to have to get on the right side of history soon. Really soon. “Separate, but equal” won’t work much longer.)
I asked if the White House would oppose any killer amendments that are offered on the DADT repeal legislation when it hits the Senate floor. We know that any amendment offered in the Senate is an attempt to cause problems in the conference committee on the Defense authorization bill. Barnes answered:
What I can tell you is that when we see the amendments that are filed that we will continue to do what we did through the process in the House, which is work to make sure that this moves forward. Obviously, if there is an effort to undermine repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the President wouldn’t be supportive of that. At the same time, I can’t sit here and walk through hypotheticals for amendments that I haven’t seen and haven’t been filed.
Well, a “killer” amendment will be filed and we’ll need more than the President not being supportive. We need him to actively oppose it — and get on the phone to Senators about it.
Also, on DADT, Pam Spaulding asked if we were sitting at this table next year at this time, would the discharges have stopped? Barnes reiterated that the President wants the discharges stopped. And, she told us that the President is pushing for this to happen soon, adding “I don’t have a crystal ball so I can’t say at “x” date.” So, we still don’t know when the discharges will end. Even the administration’s top domestic policy adviser can’t answer that question.
We know that the administration thinks DADT and DOMA are discriminatory. We’ve heard that many times, but the administration continues to defend those laws in court. But, today, several of us asked Barnes if the administration considers DADT and DOMA unconstitutional? She’s going to get back to us.
Bilerico’s Jillian Weiss wrote of today’s meeting:
I don’t feel like I walked out with any more information than I walked in with. I already knew that the President was letting the legislative branch get away with ignoring LGBT rights.
I’d like to be able to say I was satisfied with these answers. I’m sure you’d like to say nice things too. But it seems we have a fundamental disagreement with the President as to what his job is. Is it to lead — or to follow?
At the end of the meeting, I told Barnes that we should do this again, but she should bring her boss next time because the President hasn’t talked to any LGBT media since the campaign.
And, you’ll want to know that while there isn’t a high ranking LGBT official in the White House, there are a number of high ranking administration officials to whom LGBT issues are very important. Among those high ranking officials identified by Barnes are Rahm Emanuel and Jim Messina. Yes, we’re in good hands.
I’ll have more tomorrow.