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 MerkleyJeff MerkleyGreen tech isn't all it's cracked up to be 2024 GOP White House hopefuls lead opposition to Biden Cabinet 33 Democrats urge Biden to shut down Dakota Access Pipeline 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 CollinsThe Hill's Morning Report - Biden assails 'epidemic' of gun violence amid SC, Texas shootings Biden-GOP infrastructure talks off to rocky start Moderate GOP senators and Biden clash at start of infrastructure debate MORE (Maine), Mark KirkMark Steven KirkDuckworth announces reelection bid Brave new world: Why we need a Senate Human Rights Commission  Senate majority battle snags Biden Cabinet hopefuls MORE (Ill.), Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiTrump looms large over GOP donor retreat in Florida Top GOP super PAC endorses Murkowski amid primary threat Biden-GOP infrastructure talks off to rocky start MORE (Alaska), Dean HellerDean Arthur HellerOn The Trail: Democrats plan to hammer Trump on Social Security, Medicare Lobbying World Democrats spend big to put Senate in play MORE (Nev.), Kelly AyotteKelly Ann AyotteOvernight Defense: NATO expanding troops in Iraq Overnight Defense: New START extended for five years | Austin orders 'stand down' to tackle extremism | Panel recommends Biden delay Afghanistan withdrawal Study group recommends Biden delay Afghanistan withdrawal MORE (N.H.), Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanTo encourage innovation, Congress should pass two bills protecting important R&D tax provision The Hill's Morning Report - Biden assails 'epidemic' of gun violence amid SC, Texas shootings Biden-GOP infrastructure talks off to rocky start MORE (Ohio), Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeFive reasons why US faces chronic crisis at border Senate GOP faces retirement brain drain Former GOP lawmaker: Republican Party 'engulfed in lies and fear' MORE (Ariz.), John McCainJohn Sidney McCainColbert mocks Gaetz after Trump denies he asked for a pardon Five reasons why US faces chronic crisis at border Meghan McCain calls on Gaetz to resign MORE (Ariz.), Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchPress: Forget bipartisanship — it's dead! Privatization of foster care has been a disaster for children Remembering Ted Kennedy highlights decline of the Senate 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 BoehnerHarry Reid reacts to Boehner book excerpt: 'We didn't mince words' Cruz on Boehner: 'I wear with pride his drunken, bloviated scorn' Boehner on Clinton impeachment: 'I regret that I didn't fight against it' 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 BoehnerHarry Reid reacts to Boehner book excerpt: 'We didn't mince words' Cruz on Boehner: 'I wear with pride his drunken, bloviated scorn' Boehner on Clinton impeachment: 'I regret that I didn't fight against it' 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 ReidHarry Reid reacts to Boehner book excerpt: 'We didn't mince words' The Memo: Biden seeks a secret weapon — GOP voters Tensions flare over Senate filibuster 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 CoatsIntel heads to resume worldwide threats hearing scrapped under Trump Lack of cyber funds in Biden infrastructure plan raises eyebrows How President Biden can hit a home run 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.