Senate passes gay rights bill

The Senate on Thursday approved the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) in a historic advance for the gay rights cause.

The upper chamber approved ENDA in a 64-32 vote, and 10 Republicans joined Democrats in supporting the bill.

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“Let the bells of freedom ring," Sen. Jeff MerkleyJeffrey (Jeff) Alan MerkleyEarly tax bill reality very different than Democratic rhetoric Senate GOP seeks to change rules for Trump picks Dem senators tear into Trump: Tax bill 'a very big Christmas gift from Trump to himself' MORE (D-Ore.), the lead sponsor of the bill, said Thursday. "The Senate has clearly spoken to end discrimination in the workplace."

The legislation would create federal workplace protections for gay and transgender people by banning employers from making hiring and firing decisions on the basis of sexual orientation.

The Republicans voting in favor of ENDA were Sens. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsDemocrats search for 51st net neutrality vote Overnight Tech: States sue FCC over net neutrality repeal | Senate Dems reach 50 votes on measure to override repeal | Dems press Apple on phone slowdowns, kids' health | New Android malware found Overnight Regulation: Dems claim 50 votes in Senate to block net neutrality repeal | Consumer bureau takes first step to revising payday lending rule | Trump wants to loosen rules on bank loans | Pentagon, FDA to speed up military drug approvals MORE (Maine), Mark KirkMark KirkHigh stakes as Trump heads to Hill Five things to watch for at Trump-Senate GOP meeting Giffords, Scalise highlight party differences on guns MORE (Ill.), Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiSessions torched by lawmakers for marijuana move Calif. Republican attacks Sessions over marijuana policy Trump's executive order on minerals will boost national defense MORE (Alaska), Dean HellerDean Arthur HellerDemocrats search for 51st net neutrality vote Nevada Dems unveil 2018 campaign mascot: 'Mitch McTurtle' Senate campaign fundraising reports roll in MORE (Nev.), Kelly AyotteKelly Ann AyotteLessons from Alabama: GOP, throw out the old playbook The Hill's 12:30 Report Explaining Democratic victories: It’s gun violence, stupid MORE (N.H.), Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanFlake's anti-Trump speech will make a lot of noise, but not much sense Top GOP candidate drops out of Ohio Senate race Overnight Tech: Regulators to look at trading in bitcoin futures | Computer chip flaws present new security problem | Zuckerberg vows to improve Facebook in 2018 MORE (Ohio), Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeMcCain rips Trump for attacks on press Bipartisan group to introduce DACA bill in House Flake's anti-Trump speech will make a lot of noise, but not much sense MORE (Ariz.), John McCainJohn Sidney McCainMcCain rips Trump for attacks on press NSA spying program overcomes key Senate hurdle Meghan McCain says her father regrets opposition to MLK Day MORE (Ariz.), Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchKoch groups: Don't renew expired tax breaks in government funding bill Hatch tweets link to 'invisible' glasses after getting spotted removing pair that wasn't there DHS giving ‘active defense’ cyber tools to private sector, secretary says MORE (Utah) and Pat Toomey (Pa.).

Gay and human rights activists have been pushing ENDA for nearly two decades, starting with advocacy from the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) in 1994.

ENDA passed the House in 2007, but had never passed the Senate until Thursday.

The victory for gay rights activists isn’t total, however, as the bill appears to be going nowhere in the Republican House.

Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerDems face hard choice for State of the Union response Even some conservatives seem open to return to earmarks Overnight Finance: Trump, lawmakers take key step to immigration deal | Trump urges Congress to bring back earmarks | Tax law poised to create windfall for states | Trump to attend Davos | Dimon walks back bitcoin criticism MORE (R-Ohio) says he opposes the bill because it would expose businesses to “frivolous lawsuits,” and conservative groups such as Heritage Action oppose it on the grounds that it would threaten First Amendment freedoms.

“The Speaker believes this legislation will increase frivolous litigation and cost American jobs, especially small-business jobs,” said BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerDems face hard choice for State of the Union response Even some conservatives seem open to return to earmarks Overnight Finance: Trump, lawmakers take key step to immigration deal | Trump urges Congress to bring back earmarks | Tax law poised to create windfall for states | Trump to attend Davos | Dimon walks back bitcoin criticism MORE spokesman Michael Steel.

President Obama heralded the Senate vote as "a tribute to all those who fought for this progress,” and pressed House Republicans to act on the bill.

"One party in one house of Congress should not stand in the way of millions of Americans who want to go to work each day and simply be judged by the job they do," Obama said in a statement. "Now is the time to end this kind of discrimination in the workplace, not enable it."

"Just as no one in the United States can lose their job simply because of their race, gender, religion or a disability, no one should ever lose their job simply because of who they are or who they love," Obama said.

The Senate vote brings activists one step closer to enactment of legislation that would create new workplace protections in all 50 states.

The prospects for passage of ENDA brightened earlier this year when nearly every Senate Democrat, including those from conservative-leaning states, announced their support for gay marriage ahead of the Supreme Court’s ruling against the Defense of Marriage Act.

Several Republican lawmakers, including Portman and Murkowski, also came out in support of gay marriage this year.

Polls have found a broad shift in public opinion toward acceptance of gay rights. A Gallup poll in July found that 54 percent of people in the United States think same-sex marriage should be legal, doubling the 27 percent support recorded in 1993.

"It is time for Congress to pass a federal law that ensures all our citizens — regardless of where they live — can go to work unafraid to be who they are," Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidDems search for winning playbook Dems face hard choice for State of the Union response The Memo: Immigration battle tests activists’ muscle MORE (D-Nev.) said ahead of the vote.

Under the bill, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission would enforce the new workplace rules. Small businesses with fewer than 15 employees would be exempt.

The legislation also contains language that exempts religious organizations.

The Senate on Thursday adopted an amendment from Portman that would prevent government retaliation against religious organizations that don't hire someone because of sexual orientation or identity.

But Democrats rejected an amendment from Toomey that would have extended the religious exemption to any employer that is partially owned or funded by a religion or has religious affiliations — including universities.

Sen. Dan CoatsDaniel (Dan) Ray CoatsTrump urges House to reauthorize NSA surveillance after ripping it in a tweet Overnight Cybersecurity: Computer chip flaws present new security challenge | DOJ to offer House key documents in Russia probe | Vulnerability found in Google Apps Script Counterterrorism director: Current atmosphere makes job 'more difficult' MORE (R-Ind.) said he supported Toomey and Portman's amendments, but argued they did not go far enough in making a "bad bill better."

"I feel it's vital for this body to stand up for our country's longstanding right to the freedom of religion and speech," Coats said. "For these reasons, I am not able to support this current legislation." 

— This story was updated at 3:09 p.m.