Procedural vote to move to debate viewed as a key test of support for bill, which passed the Senate by 61 votes to 30.
A landmark bill that would ban workplace discrimination against gay, lesbian and transgender people passed a key vote in the US Senate on Monday, relying on support from a few initially reluctant Republicans.
The procedural vote to move to a Senate debate on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (Enda), viewed as a key test of support for the bill, passed the Senate by 61 votes to 30, one more than required.
But the prospects of the bill eventually becoming law were dealt a blow when the Republican speaker of the House of Representatives, John Boehner, said he did not support it. “The Speaker believes this legislation will increase frivolous litigation and cost American jobs, especially small business jobs,” Boehner’s spokesman, Michael Steel, said.
Boehner had previously avoided committing to a position on the legislation, and his opposition was a setback for supporters of the bill.
Barack Obama strongly supports Enda, and, in an op-ed piece published by the Huffington Post yesterday, said millions of LGBT Americans currently went to work fearful of losing their jobs.
“It’s offensive. It’s wrong. And it needs to stop because, in the United States of America, who you are and who you love should never be a fire-able offense,” the president wrote.
Obama compared the battle over Enda to efforts to end discrimination against women and religious and racial minorities. “Passing Enda would build on the progress we’ve made in recent years,” he added. “When Congress passes it, I will sign it into law, and our nation will be fairer and stronger for generations to come.”
The procedural move in the Senate required 60 votes to ensure that conservative Republicans could not block it. In total, seven Republicans joined all the members of the Democratic majority, including three who appeared to hesitate.
The vote was delayed as Republican senators Kelly Ayotte, Pat Toomey and Rob Portman met in the Republican cloak room, just off the Senate floor, where they were lobbied by the legislation’s backers.
Those involved in the a last-minute attempt to persuade the Republican trio included Harry Reid, the Democratic majority leader, and his deputy, Chuck Schumer.
All three Republicans eventually voted for the measure, ensuring it scraped through, after apparently negotiating future amendments in exchange for their support.
The fact the vote received the backing of moderate Republicans, as well as Democrats from conservative states who in previous years might have felt obliged to vote no, revealed that social attitudes in the US are changing, though slowly.
Another wavering Republican Senator, Dean Heller, had announced earlier in the day that he would back the bill, which would make it illegal for a firm in any US state to sack an individual because of their gender identity or sexual orientation.
Heller, a senator from Nevada – which is one of 22 states to have banned workplace discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation – described his decision to support the bill as “the right thing to do”. He added: “This legislation raises the federal standards to match what we have come to expect in Nevada, which is that discrimination must not be tolerated under any circumstance.” The Senate last voted on Enda in 1996, when it failed by one vote.
The proposed legislation has become a touchstone issue, revealing the fissure between the moderate and more conservative wings of the GOP.
Gay and transgender advocacy groups consider the bill a critical step towards equal rights in the US. They have had the support of Susan Collins, the Republican senator from Maine who has tried to lobby colleagues to back the bill.
However, conservative Republicans have expressed discomfort with a bill that would afford new federal rights to gay and transgender people, claiming that, if enacted, the law would enable unwarranted lawsuits. A recent study by the Government Accountability Office – the audit, evaluation and investigative arm of Congress – found the existing state-level anti-discrimination laws had led to “relatively few” legal actions.