The Senate voted 61-30 on Monday to begin debate on legislation that would create workplace protections for gay and transgender people in all 50 states.
The Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) received the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster, and will now have to move through a series of procedural hurdles before final Senate passage, which is expected later this week.
Seven Republicans joined Democrats in voting to advance the bill: Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), Kelly Ayotte (N.H.), Rob Portman (Ohio), Pat Toomey (Pa.), Dean Heller (Nev.), Mark Kirk (Ill.) and Orrin Hatch (Utah).
Another GOP supporter of ENDA, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), was not present for the vote.
The bill, S. 815, would ban workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Democrats and gay rights groups say ENDA is needed because not every state has approved such protections.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission would enforce the new workplace rules.
The White House said President Obama “welcomes the Senate’s bipartisan first step” toward passage of the bill.
“[Obama] thanks the lawmakers from both sides of the aisle who have stood up for America’s core values of fairness and equality,” said White House press secretary Jay Carney in a statement.
Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), the first openly gay U.S. senator, said the vote was about “freedom, fairness and opportunity” and said Republicans who support the bill would be remembered for their “courage.”
ENDA, which was first proposed in 1994, passed the House in 2007 but has never passed the Senate.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said a federal law is needed “to ensure all Americans, no matter where they are, will not be afraid to go to work.”
But even if the bill passes the Senate, as expected, it appears to be going nowhere in the Republican House.
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) on Monday said he is opposed to ENDA because it could open businesses up to lawsuits.
“The Speaker believes this legislation will increase frivolous litigation and cost American jobs, especially small business jobs,” said Boehner spokesman Michael Steel.
Boehner's office also said the Speaker believes current law already prohibits employers from firing their workers because of their sexual orientation.
Conservative groups, such as Heritage Action, have urged members of Congress to block ENDA, warning it would undercut First Amendment freedoms.
“The legislation would severely undermine civil liberties, increase government interference in the labor market, and trample on religious liberty,” Heritage Action said in a statement.
Democrats have included language in the bill that would exempt military and religious organizations from complying with the nondiscrimination measure.
GOP senators on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee said they are worried about how the bill would be applied to schools. They produced a report that warned ENDA’s language is "too vague for employers to understand."
"S. 815 would force employers to ignore and silence the concerns of fellow employees, customers, and other users of their facilities," the GOP senators wrote. "The repercussions of disregarding such concerns could be devastating to an employer."
Obama has backed the legislation, saying it is “offensive” and “wrong” that some states allow individuals to be fired based on their sexual orientation.
HELP Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) noted that 17 states already have laws against employment discrimination for the LGBT community and said those rules should apply nationwide.
“A vast majority believe everyone has the right to earn a living wage without discrimination,” Harkin said. “This is another step in the direction of opening America up and making our society more inclusive rather than exclusive.”
Harkin said he hoped senators would file only amendments that are germane to the bill.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) have introduced a national right-to-work amendment to ENDA.
Their amendment, which likely will be blocked by Senate Democrats, aims to prohibit labor unions from forcing some employees to pay union dues. Nearly half of the states have right-to-work laws on the books.
— This story was updated at 6:50 p.m.