November 7, 2013

Senate approves landmark gay rights legislation

But despite the bipartisan vote, chances are dim that the House will pass or even vote on the bill.

By Donna Cassata
The Associated Press

WASHINGTON – Reflecting Americans’ increasing acceptance of gays, the Senate on Thursday approved legislation that would bar workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

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Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, chairman of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, talks to reporters after the Senate cleared a major hurdle and agreed to proceed to debate a bill that would prohibit workplace discrimination against gay, bisexual and transgender Americans, at the Capitol in Washington, Monday, Nov. 4, 2013. The bipartisan vote increases the chances that the Senate will pass the bill by week’s end, but its prospects in the Republican-led House are dimmer.

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

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There were smiles all around as Democrats gathered after the Senate cut off debate to move toward a historic vote on legislation outlawing workplace discrimination against gay, bisexual and transgender Americans, on Capitol Hill in Washington on Thursday. From left are Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.

The Associated Press

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Gay rights advocates hailed the bipartisan, 64-32 vote as a historic step although it could prove short-lived. A foe of the bill, Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has signaled that the Republican-led House is unlikely to even vote. Senate proponents were looking for a way around that obstacle.

Seventeen years after a similar anti-discrimination measure failed by one vote, 54 members of the Senate Democratic majority and 10 Republicans voted for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, commonly referred to as ENDA. It is the first major gay rights bill since Congress repealed the ban on gays serving openly in the military three years ago.

BIPARTISAN SUPPORT

Maine Sen. Susan Collins was among the most prominent Republican advocates for passage of the bill, often citing the fact that Maine has had a similar law on the books for years. After helping guide the bill on the Senate floor all week, Collins said Thursday just prior to the vote that the Senate was “about to make history.”

“All Americans deserve a fair opportunity to pursue the American dream,” Collins said. “ENDA is simply about the fundamental right to work and to be judged according to one’s abilities, qualifications and job performance.”

Because Maine already prohibits workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation, passage of the federal bill is unlikely to affect either employers or employees in the state. But the bill would extend the protections to residents of 29 states without such a law.

In a statement released after the vote, President Obama praised Collins and four other senators for their leadership on the issue.

He then called on Boehner to bring the measure up for a vote in the House.

“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.

Proponents cast the effort as Congress following the lead of business and localities as some 90 percent of Fortune 500 companies and 22 states have outlawed employment discrimination against gay, bisexual and transgender Americans.

Supporters described it as the final step in a long congressional fight against discrimination, coming nearly 50 years after enactment of the Civil Rights Act and 23 years after the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“Now we’ve finished the trilogy,” said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, a chief sponsor of the disabilities law, at a Capitol Hill news conference.

Two Republican senators who voted against anti-discrimination legislation in 1996, Arizona’s John McCain, the presidential nominee in 2008, and Orrin Hatch of Utah, backed the measure this time. Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski voted in favor; her father, Frank, opposed a similar bill nearly two decades ago, underscoring the generational shift.

“Let the bells of freedom ring,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., who took the lead on the legislation from the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass.

BROAD PUBLIC SUPPORT

Senate passage came in a momentous year for gay rights advocates. The Supreme Court in June granted federal benefits to legally married same-sex couples, though it avoided a sweeping ruling that would have paved the way for same-sex unions nationwide. Illinois is on the verge of becoming the 15th state to legalize gay marriage along with the District of Columbia.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., right, speaks at a news conference as the Senate made a historic vote on legislation outlawing workplace discrimination against gay, bisexual and transgender Americans, demonstrating the nation’s quickly evolving attitude toward gay rights nearly two decades after Congress rejected same-sex marriage, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Nov. 7, 2013. From left to right are Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore. The enthusiasm of the bill’s supporters was tempered by the reality that the Republican-led House, where conservatives have a firm grip on the agenda, is unlikely to even vote on it.

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

  


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