A long-stalled bill banning workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity is likely to pass the Senate as early as this week, a sign of the fast-changing political landscape for gay rights.
The fight over the measure is far from over, however. Conservative groups launched a last-ditch effort to stop it in the Senate. In the House of Representatives, prospects for approval appeared even slimmer as Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, announced his opposition.
The Senate signaled its likely approval Monday with a 61-30 vote clearing the way for a final vote later this week on the proposed Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would make it illegal to discriminate in the hiring and firing of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender workers.
Monday’s vote and likely Senate approval reflect changing times and changing public and political attitudes among Democrats and Republicans toward lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues.
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“Today marks another step forward in the progress of the United States of America in making sure that all of our citizens are treated fairly and equitably under law,” said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa. “It is a huge step forward, one too long in coming.”
The bill, which has been introduced in Congress every year since 1994, failed by one vote in the Senate in 1996. It passed the House in 2007 but died in the Senate.
Since then, Congress overturned the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in 2010 and ended the ban on gays and lesbians serving in uniform. Poll after poll shows greater acceptance of same-sex marriage.
“This is an extremely important moment for the LGBT movement in our country,” said David Codell, legal director for the Williams Institute, a research group that advances sexual orientation law and public policy at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Still, the bill’s battle in the 113th Congress could be just beginning. With more than two-thirds of the public supporting a federal law to protect gay people in the workplace, some opponents have seized on a provision in this year’s version of the bill that would extend the same protections to transgender people, who face higher rates of job discrimination than gays, lesbians and bisexuals do.
Some opponents, such as the conservative Family Research Council, charge that the measure would lead to gender-neutral restrooms and gender-reassignment surgeries being covered by employer-sponsored health insurance plans.
In a letter to senators last Friday, Ralph Reed, the founder and chairman of the Faith & Freedom Coalition, wrote that “ENDA is simply not sound public policy, defining discrimination based on subjective perception of sexual orientation rather than externally identifiable characteristics of race and gender.”
Reed warned lawmakers that his group would “score this vote to invoke cloture as an ‘anti-family’ position on our congressional scorecard.”
Boehner said he opposed the bill because he thought “this legislation will increase frivolous litigation and cost American jobs, especially small business jobs,” spokesman Michael Steel said in an email.
The House bill, introduced by Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., and Jared Polis, D-Colo., has 153 co-sponsors. Boehner’s comments drew a swift rebuke from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
“It’s deeply disappointing to see that Speaker Boehner would block any legislation that would end discrimination,” said Drew Hammill, a Pelosi spokesman. “When the Senate passes this legislation, all options will be on the table in order to advance this critical legislation in the House.”
The White House weighed in Monday, saying that President Barack Obama strongly supports Senate passage of the bill and thinks it’s long overdue.
“We have long supported an inclusive legislative path to dealing with employment nondiscrimination of LGBT Americans,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Monday. “I noted and others here noted Speaker Boehner’s comments with regret, and his reasoning behind the position he took sounds familiar to the opposition to all – almost all – civil rights measures that have come and been passed into law in this country over the years.”
Gay rights activists say they intend to fight as hard for final passage of the measure in the Senate and House as they did to get the bill to Monday’s test vote. The Human Rights Campaign alone spent more than $2 million targeting senators such as Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Mark Pryor, D-Ark.
“It’s going to take continued activity from organizations like the task force and continued lobbying,” said Stacey Long, the director of public policy and government affairs for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. “We’re not going to stop pressing.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., filed for the procedural vote last week once he knew all 53 Democratic senators would vote for the bill. Independent Sens. Bernard Sanders of Vermont and Angus King of Maine indicated that they’d vote yes. Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Orrin Hatch of Utah, Susan Collins of Maine and Mark Kirk of Illinois also signaled support of the bill.
The bill reached 60 when Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., announced that he also would vote for it.
“After listening to Nevadans’ concerns about this issue from a variety of viewpoints and after numerous conversations with my colleagues, I feel that supporting this legislation is the right thing to do,” he said in a statement.
Anita Kumar and Curtis Tate contributed to this story.