Senate set to advance gay rights legislation with Heller's support

Lauren Victoria Burke

The Senate is poised to move forward Monday with legislation that would ban forms of workplace discrimination against gay and transgendered people.

Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) on Monday announced his support for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), likely giving Democrats the 60 votes they would need to break a Republican filibuster.

"After listening to Nevadans' concerns about this issue from a variety of viewpoints and after numerous conversations with my colleagues, I feel that supporting this legislation is the right thing to do," Heller said Monday.

"This legislation raises the federal standards to match what we have come to expect in Nevada, which is that discrimination must not be tolerated under any circumstance," Heller wrote.

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In addition to Heller, four other Republicans are behind the bill. Sens. Susan Collin (Maine) is a co-sponsor, and three other GOP senators — Sens. Orrin Hatch (Utah), Mark Kirk (Ill.) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) — voted for it on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee.

But while the legislation is likely to advance in the Senate, it faces an uncertain future in the House.

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) on Monday said he opposes the legislation because it would harm the economy.

“The Speaker believes this legislation will increase frivolous litigation and cost American jobs, especially small business jobs,” said Boehner spokesman Michael Steel.

Senate Republicans who oppose the bill have similar concerns. Republican opponents on the HELP Committee said the bill's language is "too vague for employers to understand" their responsibilities.

“[The bill] would force employers to ignore and silence the concerns of fellow employees, customers, and other users of their facilities," the GOP lawmakers wrote. "The repercussions of disregarding such concerns could be devastating to an employer."

But Democrats are pushing hard for the legislation and are pointing to the bipartisan support in the Senate to pressure Boehner into bringing it up for a vote.

"The Senate now has 60 votes to finally #PassENDA & ensure that workers are judged on performance, not prejudice," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Monday in a tweet. "The House must follow suit."

The Employment Non-Discrimination Act would prohibit workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

The bill contains protections for gay and bisexual workers that were first pushed nearly 20 years ago by Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.). At its core, the bill would prohibit companies, associations and government employers at all levels from using sexual orientation and gender identity as a basis for discrimination.

The bill also includes language meant to protect people in the process of "gender transition." The bill doesn't define that term, but it does say anyone "undergoing gender transition" must be allowed to dress in the manner of their new gender.

President Obama urged Republicans to back ENDA in a blog post Sunday night, arguing that laws in some states that allow individuals to be fired based on their sexual orientation are “offensive” and “wrong.”

“Americans ought to be judged by one thing only in their workplaces: their ability to get their jobs done,” Obama wrote.

“Several Republican Senators have already voiced their support, as have a number of Republicans in the House,” Obama wrote. “If more members of Congress step up, we can put an end to this form of discrimination once and for all.”

But many conservatives are skeptical that the legislation is needed. The influential group Heritage Action last week said employers “should respect the intrinsic dignity of all their employees,” but called the discrimination bill “bad public policy.”

“The legislation would severely undermine civil liberties, increase government interference in the labor market, and trample on religious liberty,” Heritage Action wrote.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on Monday said Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) should allow a vote on the gay-rights bill because “it’s the right thing to do.”

“It is time for Congress to pass a federal law to ensure all Americans no matter where they are will not be afraid to go to work,” Reid said. “They deserve to be treated with the same respect and dignity while they earn a living.”

After Monday's first procedural vote, the Senate is expected to debate ENDA for the rest of the week.

— This story was first posted at 10:43 a.m. and has been updated.