POSTED: 2:20 a.m. HST, Nov 5, 2013
The Senate pushed a major anti-bias gay rights bill past a first, big hurdle Monday, a clear sign of Americans' greater acceptance of homosexuality nearly two decades after a law prohibited federal recognition of same-sex marriage.
The vote of 61-30 essentially ensured that the Senate has the votes to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would prohibit workplace discrimination against gay, bisexual and transgender Americans.
Final passage, possibly by week's end, would cap a 17-year quest to win Senate support for a similar discrimination measure that failed by one vote in 1996, the same year Congress passed and President Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act.
Reflecting the nation's shifting views toward gay rights, seven Senate Republicans joined 54 Democrats to vote to move ahead on the legislation.
"Rights are sometimes intangible, but, boy, if you've ever been discriminated against, seeking employment or seeking an advancement, it's bitter," Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., the only openly gay member of the Senate, said after the vote. "And it's been a long, long fight, but I think its day has come. And that's just very exciting to witness."
The legislation would be the first significant gay rights legislation since Congress ended the ban on gays serving openly in the military in December 2010. The Supreme Court in June affirmed gay marriage and granted federal benefits to legally married same-sex couples, while same-sex marriage is legal in 14 states and the District of Columbia and is being considered by Hawaii's lawmakers.
About a half-hour after the Senate acted, President Barack Obama cited the vote as an example of "common sense starting to prevail" in Congress.
"Inexorably, the idea of a more tolerant, more prosperous country that offers more opportunity to more people, that's an idea that the vast majority of Americans believe in," the president told a group of supporters gathered for a summit in Washington on Monday night.
Prospects are dimmer in the Republican-led House where Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, remains opposed.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, a chief sponsor of the legislation, said the 60-plus bipartisan vote should force the House to vote on the legislation.
"It was Republican votes that made the difference tonight, and that is a strong signal," Collins aid. "I also think that attitudes are changing very rapidly on gay rights issues, and we're seeing that with each passing day. More and more people have embraced equality."
The vote served as a vivid reminder of the nation's changing views and lingering resistance to homosexuality. The political implications resonated in Maine, as six-term Democratic Rep. Mike Michaud, who is running for governor, said he was gay and questioned whether it still mattered to voters.
The three potential Republican presidential candidates — Marco Rubio of Florida, Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky — voted against, a reflection that among core GOP conservative voters, opposition to gay rights remains strong. No senator spoke against the measure during Monday's debate.
Tony Perkins of the conservative Family Research Council said in a statement that he was disappointed in the Senate vote but "confident that the U.S. House of Representatives will ultimately reject ENDA because it not only threatens the free market but religious liberties as well."
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 employment decisions, including hiring, firing, compensation or promotion.
The bill would exempt religious institutions and the military.