04/12/2012 06:25 pm ET

White House Defends Obama's Not Ordering LGBT Worker Protections

WASHINGTON -- White House Press Secretary Jay Carney faced a barrage of questions on Thursday about why President Barack Obama won't use his executive authority to ban some workplace discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people -- the only action likely to take on such discrimination anytime soon.

LGBT activists met privately with senior administration officials on Wednesday to discuss the possibility of Obama signing an executive order that would prohibit workplace discrimination by any federal contractor on the basis of sexual orientation. The meeting ended with the officials saying that an order isn't in the works and that the administration will continue pressing Congress to pass a law.

During Thursday's daily briefing, Carney maintained that Obama is committed to ensuring equal rights for the LGBT community but that, in this case, he prefers a legislative solution.

"The president is committed to lasting and comprehensive nondiscrimination protections, and we plan to pursue a number of strategies to attain that goal," Carney said. "Our hope is these efforts will result in the passage of ENDA, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which is a legislative solution to LGBT employment discrimination."

Asked why Obama wouldn't just issue an executive order since he already supports ENDA, and since an order targeting federal contractors would affect a smaller pool of people than the congressional bill, Carney said the administration is taking a similar approach to the strategy it pursued with the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy. In that case, the administration worked on building support among various coalitions to put pressure on Congress to finally repeal the law.

"I think that the DADT repeal is instructive here in terms of the approach that we're taking at this time," Carney said. "While it is not our usual practice to discuss executive orders that may or may not be under consideration, we do not expect that an EO on LGBT nondiscrimination for federal contractors will be issued at this time."

The White House spokesman denied that Obama was steering clear of the issue for political reasons.

"Absolutely not," Carney said in response to a question about politics driving the president's decision. He reiterated that the administration is "actively working with stakeholders" to build support for legislation that would be "far more comprehensive" than an executive order.

The reality is that Congress is unlikely to pass ENDA in the next few years. Republicans control the House and Democrats barely control the Senate, which means that, particularly in an election year, legislation relating to gay rights isn't moving. ENDA has been introduced in almost every Congress since 1994. It passed the House once in 2007, at a time when Democrats controlled both chambers, but died in the Senate shortly thereafter.

Carney punted on other questions about when, if not now, Obama might issue an executive order on the matter and about there being differences between the administration's approach to repealing DADT and its strategy for tackling workplace discrimination.

"We are not approaching this at this time through executive authority," Carney said repeatedly. "We are, however ... aggressively pursuing passage of ENDA. And that requires working with stakeholders and building a body of persuasive evidence that this is the right thing to do. And that is what we're committed to doing."

Some Democratic lawmakers lamented that Obama isn't stepping up when he has the ability to make a change.

"I'm disappointed that, at this time, the administration has decided not to issue an executive order prohibiting contractors from receiving federal funds unless they have sexual orientation and gender identity anti-discrimination policies in place," Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) said in a statement.

"Congress needs to work to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act; however, signing an executive order is a step that could be taken now to make sure that federal dollars do not go to contractors without strong policies prohibiting discrimination in the workplace. ... I encourage the Administration to reconsider its position on signing an executive order to protect LGBT employees," Pallone said.