Senate Advances Employment Non-Discrimination Act

With a vote of 61-30, the Senate voted to move forward on legislation that would prohibit workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Monday's vote opens the floor to debate on the bill and the Senate is expected to schedule a full vote by week's end.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

We still don't know the odds that it will become law, but a bill banning discrimination against gay workers is likely to pass the U.S. Senate. The Employment Non-Discrimination Act would add protections nationwide for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees or job applicants.

MONTAGNE: Like nearly all significant measures these days, the bill known by its initials, ENDA, needed 60 votes to overcome opposition in the Senate, considerably more than a majority. It got them. It was a dramatic vote in which all Democrats and independent were joined by a number of Republicans.

INSKEEP: That tally included a Republican senator who delivered his first speech since suffering s stroke.

Here's NPR's David Welna.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: The bill that's on the Senate floor has been a long time coming. Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin was in a GOP-controlled Senate when ENDA was last considered there in 1996.

SENATOR TOM HARKIN: And we lost by one vote, 50 to 49. That was a, that was a dark day. We've been trying to get it up ever since, and finally we've, we've done it.

WELNA: The 1964 Civil Rights Act already bans workplace discrimination on the basis of race, national origin, sex and religion. But ENDA expands the grounds on which employers cannot discriminate to include sexual orientation and identity. It would apply to all private employers with more than 15 employees except religious organizations, and to all public entities except the Pentagon.

Maine Republican Susan Collins is co-sponsoring the bill, after voting nearly three years ago to roll back the ban on openly gay service members.

SENATOR SUSAN COLLINS: I would say that just as the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" has been implemented quite smoothly, that we will see ENDA implemented smoothly as well, if we stand up, do what is right, and pass this bill.

WELNA: Not one senator spoke on the Senate floor against the bill. Illinois Republican Mark Kirk rose for his first speech there since suffering a major stroke nearly two years ago, because, he said, he believed so passionately in enacting ENDA.

SENATOR MARK KIRK: 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, men who gave us the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.

WELNA: Also in favor was Wisconsin Democrat Tammy Baldwin, who one year ago became the first openly gay person ever elected to the Senate.

SENATOR TAMMY BALDWIN: I realize that for some this is not an easy vote. I understand for some, they may believe that it's not good politics. But I want to say that I have a deep respect for those who choose to stand on the side of progress for our country this week.

WELNA: The one Republican who did publicly oppose ENDA yesterday was House Speaker John Boehner. His spokesman issued a statement saying Boehner believed the legislation would lead to frivolous lawsuits and cost jobs. Wisconsin's Baldwin, who last served in the House, later said she's sure ENDA has enough support there.

BALDWIN: I just think if it got an up or down vote, it would pass. So then the question is, how do you get it to the floor to receive that up or down vote?

WELNA: Boehner has shown no inclination to bring up that bill. But Fred Sainz of the Human Rights Campaign, which lobbies for gay rights, says the speaker is bucking a tide of public opinion that's turned solidly in favor of ENDA.

FRED SAINZ: This issue's changing very, very rapidly, and what we've seen just over the course of the last few years is that Americans from all walks of life support basic common sense workplace protections.

WELNA: Last night the White House issued a statement saying President Obama welcomed what he called the Senate's bipartisan first step towards final passage of ENDA.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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