In 1996 ENDA failed Senate passage by the slimmest margin. Amazingly ten years ago, even more than today, employment nondiscrimination looked like a done deal. President Bill Clinton had pledged to sign ENDA into law, and Representative Barney Frank lead and won an up hill battle for passage in the Republican controlled House of Representatives. Just as today, the slightest majority possible had pledged support in the Senate, and Vice President Al Gore was excited to leave the campaign trail in order to cast the tie breaking vote in the Senate. It's amazing that the same Congress that passed the Defense of Marriage Act was poised to pass ENDA also. Interestingly, that was part of the strategy. Barney Frank explained it this way:
Everything was in place, but something terrible happened. Arkansas Senator David Pryor was planning to support the Kennedy sponsored ENDA bill, but he was called back to Little Rock. His son, Mark Pryor, the current junior Senator from Arkansas, was undergoing an emergency operation just as the debate and vote commenced in Washington. From USA today:
"DOMA served as a stop-loss order for members of the Senate," says Frank. "In the past they always feared that if they voted for gay rights they would be accused of supporting a much broader gay agenda. When they voted for DOMA and ENDA, they could go home and say, `Don't tell me I voted for the gay rights agenda. I voted to ban gay marriage.' Members don't have this kind of cover this year."
A surgeon operating on a torn tendon discovered sarcoma, a rare form of cancer that is usually fatal. Pryor underwent 13 hours of surgery to have his tendon replaced in 1996. It was 15 months before he was able to walk again unassisted.
Fast forward ten years, and things seem eerily similar. Our country has made significant progress though. In 1996, general election exit polling showed that a slim majority of Americans agreed that GLBT workers should be protected from discrimination. Today, tolerance for GLBT has grown. Even Congressional Republicans fear being labeled a bigot. As their constituents have witnessed corruption, a failed foreign policy, and economic instability, regressive social policies seem trite and unimportant when compared to the many challenges our country now faces.
Here is an interesting article that fleshes out all of the details of ENDA fight in the late '90s.