Gay rights bill passes first major hurdle in Congress

The Employee Non-Discrimination Act is still slated to face strong opposition from House Speaker John Boehner

The Employee Non-Discrimination Act would prohibit workplace discrimination against gay, bisexual and transgender Americans
Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

The Senate voted to proceed with a landmark anti-bias gay rights bill Monday, reflecting the dramatic shift in national attitudes towards the acceptance of homosexuality that has taken place since similar anti-discrimination legislation was rejected by lawmakers two decades ago.

By a vote of 61-30, the Senate effectively ended a filibuster, allowing it to debate the Employee Non-Discrimination Act of 2013.

The legislation would prohibit workplace discrimination against gay, bisexual and transgender Americans. The bill is expected to pass a final senate vote, but is slated to face strong opposition in the Republican-dominated House of Representatives.

A reminder of some lawmakers’ lingering resistance to equal rights for gay men and women resonated in Maine, as six-term Democratic Rep. Mike Michaud, who is running for governor with a slight edge over the opposition in opinion polls, said he was gay and questioned whether it still mattered to voters.

"Yes I am (gay). But why should it matter?" Michaud said, in a bid to maintain his constituency.

Hours before Monday's Senate procedural vote, President Barack Obama issued a fresh plea for passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, the first significant gay rights bill since Congress lifted the ban on gays serving openly in the military nearly three years ago.

"Americans ought to be judged by one thing only in their workplaces: their ability to get their jobs done," the president said in a message written for the Huffington Post. "Does it make a difference if the firefighter who rescues you is gay — or the accountant who does your taxes or the mechanic who fixes your car?"

Following Monday's vote, the White House said the president welcomes the “senate’s bipartisan first step” toward the law’s enactment.

In high drama for the Senate, the typical 15-minute vote stretched beyond 30 minutes of waiting and cajoling.

Two backers of the measure — Sens. Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — were on planes back to Washington. That left sponsors stuck at 58 of the necessary 60 votes, forcing Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., to lobby fiercely, sometimes at the door of the Republican cloakroom off the Senate floor.

Seven Republicans joined all the members of the Democratic majority who voted for the measure. The three potential Republican presidential candidates — Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Rand Paul — voted against.

Opening Senate debate, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., quoted slain gay rights leader Harvey Milk, who argued that freedom and individual rights shouldn't hinge on political deals and opinion polls.

The law, Reid said, would ensure that "all Americans regardless of where they live can go to work unafraid to be who they are." Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa., called the measure another step forward in the country's progress.

Current federal law prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, race and national origin. But it doesn't stop an employer from firing or refusing to hire workers because they are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. The bill would bar employers with 15 or more workers from using a person's sexual orientation or gender identity as the basis for making employment decisions, including hiring, firing, compensation or promotion.

The senate's passage of the bill would mark the end of a 17-year quest to secure the chamber's support for the anti-bias measure that failed by one vote in 1996, the same year Congress passed and President Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act. That law required the federal government to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages.

The end of this first step in the Senate's passage of the bill reflects a change in popular attitudes. A Pew Research survey in June found that more Americans said homosexuality should be accepted rather than discouraged by society, by a margin of 60 percent to 31 percent.

Although the same survey shows the U.S. trails other Western countries, including Germany and Canada, opinions were more evenly divided 10 years ago.

In 1996, Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah voted against the bill. Earlier this year, he was one of several Republicans to back the measure in committee along with Sen. Lisa Murkowksi of Alaska. Seventeen years ago, Murkowski's father Frank — then the state's senator — voted against the bill.

Today, Americans have shown increasing support for same-sex marriage, now legal in 14 states and the District of Columbia. The Supreme Court in June affirmed gay marriage and granted federal benefits to legally married same-sex couples.

The anti-discrimination bill faces strong opposition from conservative groups. Heritage Action and the Faith and Freedom Coalition said the vote will be part of their legislative scorecard on lawmakers. As to its immediate prospects, the legislation is opposed by Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and it's unclear whether the House will even vote on the measure.

Reiterating Boehner's longstanding opposition, spokesman Michael Steel said Monday that Boehner "believes this legislation will increase frivolous litigation and cost American jobs, especially small business jobs."

Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, the largest gay and lesbian advocacy group, contrasted Heller's backing with Boehner's opposition.

"The speaker, of all people, should certainly know what it's like to go to work every day afraid of being fired," Griffin said, a reference to the unsuccessful, tea party-backed challenge to Boehner earlier this year.

Twenty-two states and the District of Columbia have approved laws banning workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and 17 of those also prohibit employers from discriminating based on gender identity.

About 88 percent of Fortune 500 companies have adopted nondiscrimination policies that include sexual orientation, according to the Human Rights Campaign. About 57 percent of those companies include gender identity.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce remains neutral on the bill, a spokeswoman said Monday.

Drew Hammill, a spokesman for House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, said it was disappointing that Boehner may not bring the measure to a vote. "When the Senate passes this legislation, all options will be on the table in order to advance this critical legislation in the House," Hammill said.

At the White House, spokesman Jay Carney sidestepped questions about whether Obama would consider issuing an executive order on workplace discrimination if Congress refused to act. Gay rights groups have criticized Obama for refusing to take that step, which would affect employees who work for federal contractors.

"We're focused on getting ENDA through Congress," Carney said, using the acronym for the workplace discrimination bill.

Al Jazeera and The Associated Press

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