WASHINGTON — The Senate approved a long-stalled, landmark bill Thursday that would ban workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, reflecting the nation’s fast-changing public and political attitudes toward gay rights.
The 64-to-32 vote caps a nearly 20-year effort to get the Employment Non-Discrimination Act through the Senate. It’s the most significant action on gay rights since Congress repealed the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” ban on gay people serving openly in the military in 2010 and President Barack Obama announced support last year for same-sex marriage.
“For more than two centuries, the story of our nation has been the story of more citizens realizing the rights and freedoms that are our birthright as Americans,” Obama said after the vote. “Today’s victory is a tribute to all those who fought for this progress ever since a similar bill was introduced after the Stonewall riots,” a milestone in the gay rights movement more than four decades ago in New York.
Ten Senate Republicans joined 52 Democrats and two independents in voting for the bill Thursday. Four senators – Bob Casey, D-Pa., John Barrasso, R-Wyo., Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and Jeff Sessions, R-Ala. – didn’t vote.
Obama urged House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, to “bring this bill to the floor for a vote and send it to my desk so I can sign it into law. On that day, our nation will take another historic step toward fulfilling the founding ideals that define us as Americans.” Boehner opposes the proposal.
Rory Cooper, a spokesman for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said the measure wasn’t on the House of Representatives’ schedule.
“I hope Majority Leader Harry Reid soon addresses the dozens of House-passed bills that have been ignored in the Senate that create jobs, improve education and create opportunity while Americans struggle to find a good-paying job,” Cooper said.
When the measure was first formally introduced in 1994, no states recognized gay marriage. Now 15 states and the District of Columbia do.
But while gay rights have advanced on many fronts, there still is no federal law that protects gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans from job discrimination.
The Employment Non-Discrimination Act has been introduced in Congress every year since, and it failed by one vote in the Senate in 1996. It passed the House in 2007 but died in the Senate.
The bipartisan vote Thursday in the Senate was driven in large part by America’s evolving views on gay rights. Poll after poll has found increasing acceptance among people affiliated with both political parties on issues ranging from same-sex marriage to workplace protections for LGBT workers.
“I have seen firsthand the progress that we have made in recognizing that fairness and opportunity are not partisan issues,” said Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., the Senate’s only openly gay member. She recalled crafting an earlier House version of the bill with then-Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., another openly gay lawmaker.
“It was a difficult debate and there were many disagreements,” Baldwin said. “However, the tone of the debate here on the Senate floor has been remarkably dignified and cordial.”
The House passed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act by 235-184 in September 2007. Thirty-five Republicans, including Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the chair of the House Budget Committee and presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s running mate in 2012, voted for it.
But the current House must approve the proposal, and it has a different makeup.
The House bill has 193 co-sponsors thus far, including five Republicans – Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, Jon Runyan of New Jersey, and Chris Gibson and Richard Hanna of New York.
“We firmly believe that if the House of Representatives were freed by Speaker Boehner to vote its conscience, this bill could pass immediately,” said Fred Sainz, a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, an advocacy group for LGBT rights. “It’s unconscionable that any one person would stand in the way of this crucial piece of the civil rights puzzle.”
Opponents charge that the measure would lead to frivolous job-discrimination lawsuits and gender-reassignment surgeries being covered by employer-sponsored health insurance plans.
“We’ll use every effort to stop the bill in the House,” said Ralph Reed, the chair of the Faith & Freedom Coalition. “I really don’t see this moving in the House.”
The measure would bar employers with 15 or more workers from discriminating based on sexual orientation or gender identity. It exempts religious institutions and the military.
The bill drew more Republican support after the Senate approved an amendment Wednesday by Republican Sens. Rob Portman of Ohio and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire that would prevent federal, state and local governments from taking legal action against religious groups that are exempt under the act.
Senators rejected an amendment by Sen. Patrick Toomey, R-Pa., that would have expanded the number of groups covered under the bill’s religious exemption clause.
The amendments were payback for Toomey, Ayotte and Portman in exchange for their support in a procedural vote Monday that advanced the measure to the final-passage stage Thursday. But the amendments weren’t enough to satisfy some Republicans.
“Some members believe that these amendments go too far. I, frankly, believe they don’t go far enough,” said Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind. “I feel it’s vital for this body to stand up for our country’s long-standing right to the freedom of religion and speech. For these reasons, I am not able to support this current legislation.”
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