The Senate has advanced a bill to expand workplace protections for gay, lesbian and transgender Americans, marking the chamber’s first vote on the issue in more than 15 years.
The procedural vote, which required the support of 60 senators, was 61-30. The measure was supported by seven Republicans and by all Democrats who were present for the vote.
The Senate hasn't voted on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) since 1996, when it failed by just a single vote. But, after surviving Monday night’s hurdle, the current version of the bill is poised for final Senate approval later this week, although it currently appears to have no future in the House.
The legislation would go beyond a similar bill the Senate previously rejected, which would have banned job discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The current version adds “gender identity” as a protected status. The bill would also exempt religious institutions, religious-affiliated colleges and schools, and the U.S. military.
On Monday morning, Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., announced his support for ENDA, becoming its key 60th supporter. The other Republicans backing the measure were Sens. Rob Portman, R-Ohio., Pat Toomey, R-Pa., Mark Kirk, R-Ill., Susan Collins, R-Maine and Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska had announced support for the bill but was not present for the vote.
Speaking on the Senate floor for the first time since his stroke in January of 2012, Kirk - one of the bill's co-sponsors - said, “I’ve been silent for two years due to a stroke – a little under two years ago,” but he said that he was speaking “because I believe so passionately in enacting the ENDA statute.”
No senators came to the floor on Monday to speak in opposition to the bill.
Despite the expected passage in the Senate, it likely will be blocked by the GOP-led House.
A spokesman for Republican House Speaker John Boehner said Monday that he opposes the legislation.
"The speaker believes this legislation will increase frivolous litigation and cost American jobs, especially small business jobs,” said spokesman Michael Steel.
But Democrats said that Boehner would further hurt the GOP with young and more socially moderate voters if he refuses to allow a vote on the bill.
"Next year Americans will have the opportunity to replace House Republicans who stand in the way of common sense - and elect Democrats who will stand up for the right of all Americans to do their jobs without fear of being fired because of who they love," Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel said after the vote.
Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., the first openly gay or lesbian person to be elected to the U.S. Senate, pushed for the legislation on Monday after noting her own historic election.
"It's about fairness, about whether lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans deserve to be treated just like their family members, their friends, their neighbors, and fellow workers," Baldwin said.
“I didn't run to make history," she added. "I ran to make a difference, a difference that would give everyone a fair shot at achieving their dreams. I couldn't be more proud of the bipartisan effort to make a difference with the Employment Non-Discrimination Act."
NBC's Tom Curry contributed to this report.
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First published November 4 2013, 3:52 PM