WASHINGTON — The Senate moved forward on a bill to prohibit workplace discrimination against gays and lesbians Monday in an dramatic 61-30 vote. But opposition from the House speaker means the bill may not get to President Obama's desk.
The Senate vote was not without suspense. With Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., at a funeral, Democrats needed last-minute support from two Republicans to get the 60 votes necessary to prevent a filibuster. Democratic leaders went into the Republican cloakroom to plead with Sens. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Pat Toomey, R-Pa. After half an hour of voting, they both voted yes.
The vote clears the way for the Senate to consider the issue for the first time since 1996, when it failed in the Senate by a single vote.
The last House effort to pass the bill succeeded, 235 to 184, in a Democratic-controlled Congress in 2007. But House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, reaffirmed his long-standing opposition to the bill Monday, making it unlikely the House will schedule a vote. "The Speaker believes this legislation will increase frivolous litigation and cost American jobs, especially small-business jobs," Boehner press secretary Michael Steel said.
Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., said she's confident the measure would pass the House if it got an up-or-down vote. But it could take a discharge petition signed by a majority of House members to get it out of committee. Or the Senate could attach it to a package of proposals the House wants.
The Obama administration urged Congress on Monday to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which would expand current civil rights laws to prohibit employment discrimination based on sexual orientation. "Passage of this bill is long overdue," a White House statement said.
Seven Republican senators joined 52 Democrats and two independents to move forward on the bill: Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., Susan Collins, R-Maine, Dean Heller, R-Nev., Mark Kirk, R-Ill., Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, Portman and Toomey.
Hatch's support is especially noteworthy. He voted against the proposal the last time it came up for a vote in 1996, when he was the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, saying it would result in a "litigation bonanza."
Kirk used the occasion Monday to give his first speech on the floor of the Senate in nearly two years, after a stroke incapacitated him in January 2012.
"I believe so passionately in enacting the ENDA statute," he said in a short speech, after asking special permission to speak while seated. "I think it's particularly appropriate for an Illinois Republican to speak on behalf of this measure. In the true tradition of Everett McKinley Dirksen and Abraham Lincoln, who gave us the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 13th Amendment to the Constitution."
The bill's sponsor, Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., said Democrats won over last-minute Republican votes by promising to allow their amendments. Ayotte and Portman want stronger language on religious liberty and a non-retaliation provision that would prohibit governments from taking action against religiously affiliated groups.
That's a concern of social conservative groups. Faith and Freedom Coalition founder Ralph Reed said he opposes workplace discrimination, "but this bill opens a Pandora's box of assaults on religious freedom, litigation, and compliance costs for businesses and non-profits that will be a nightmare."
Catholic bishops also oppose the bill. "No one should be an object of scorn, hatred, or violence for any reason, including his or her sexual inclinations," said a letter to the Senate from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. However, the bishops said the definition of "sexual orientation" was too vague, could include other forms of sexual conduct and would legitimize same-sex marriage.
A 2009 report by the Government Accountability Office found "relatively few employment discrimination complaints based on sexual orientation and gender identity" in 21 states and the District of Columbia that have such laws.
Contributing: Erin Kelly and Deirdre Shesgreen of Gannett News Service