The Senate on Monday cleared a procedural hurdle on a bill that aims to end workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, setting up a final vote on the measure, which faces an uphill battle in the House.
Supporters of the proposal said it would provide necessary legal protections for gay, bisexual and transgender Americans in much the same fashion that the Civil Rights Act shielded workers from discrimination based on race, gender, religion or disability.
Before the vote, President Obama urged lawmakers to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, saying it is long overdue.
“Americans ought to be judged by one thing only in their workplaces: their ability to get their jobs done,” Mr. Obama wrote on Huffingtonpost.com. “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?”
Six Republicans joined with every member of the Democratic caucus in a 61-30 vote, opening the door for the Senate to hold an up-or-down vote on the bill, which could happen before the end of the week.
The bill got a boost Monday after Sen. Dean Heller, Nevada Republican, announced his support, giving it the 60 votes needed for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, to move the bill forward.
Minutes later, though, House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, came out against the proposal, signaling that the bill is dead on arrival in the House
“The speaker believes this legislation will increase frivolous litigation and cost American jobs, especially small business jobs,” said Michael Steel, a Boehner spokesman.
White House press secretary Jay Carney dismissed Mr. Boehner’s criticism, saying the “position he took sounds familiar to the opposition to almost all civil rights measures that have come and been passed into law in this country over the years. That opposition was wrong then and it is wrong now,” Mr. Carney told reporters at the daily press briefing.
Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia have laws on the books that protect employees from discrimination based on sexual orientation, according to the Human Rights Campaign. Of those, 17 states and the District have laws protecting workers from both sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination.
“A patchwork of state laws that excludes tens of millions of Americans from basic protection from discrimination is simply not good enough,” Mr. Reid said Monday on the Senate floor. “It is time for Congress to pass a federal law that ensures all Americans — regardless of where they live — can go to work unafraid to be themselves.”
Sen. Susan M. Collins, Maine Republican, said, “it is past time that we ensure all employees are judged solely based on their talents, abilities, their hard work, their capabilities by closing an important gap in federal employment law as it relates to sexual orientation.”
Sen. Mark Kirk, Illinois Republican, also spoke in support of the bill, marking his first floor speech since he suffered a stroke in 2012.
Ian Thompson, a legislative representative for the American Civil Liberties Union, acknowledged that similar bills have died in the past, but said that this time could be different because of the strong support for equal rights among the American people.
“I think [the Employment Non-Discrimination Act] is in as strong a position to actually pass Congress now as it has ever been,” he told The Washington Times.
But Ralph Reed, founder and chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, sent a letter to lawmakers urging them to vote against the measure.
“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,” he said. “It will burden family-owned businesses with unnecessary and costly litigation, compliance costs, and risk avoidance through litigation mitigation that will divert resources from creating jobs.”
⦁ Ben Wolfgang contributed to this report.