Senate OKs gay rights bill banning discrimination; Utah senators split vote
J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — The Senate approved 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.
Fifty-four members of the Democratic majority and 10 Republicans voted Thursday for the first major gay rights bill since Congress repealed the ban on gays in the military three years ago. The vote in favor of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act was 64-32.
Two opponents of a similar measure 17 years ago, Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, the presidential nominee in 2008, and Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, backed the measure this time. Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee voted against it.
"We are about to make history in this chamber," Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine and a chief sponsor of the bill, said shortly before the vote.
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 the legislation. Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, maintains his longstanding opposition to the measure, arguing that it is unnecessary and certain to create costly, frivolous lawsuits for businesses.
Outside conservative groups have cast the bill as anti-family.
President Barack Obama welcomed the vote and urged the House to act.
"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."
Gay rights advocates hailed Senate passage as a major victory in a momentous year for the issue. 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.
Supporters called the bill the final step in a long congressional tradition of trying to stop 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," Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, a chief sponsor of the disabilities law, said at a Capitol Hill news conference.
The first openly gay senator, Democrat Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, called the vote a "tremendous milestone" that she will always remember throughout her time in the Senate.
Democrats echoed Obama in pushing for the House to act, with Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois reminding the GOP leader of the history of his party.
"The Republican Party in the United States of America came into being in the 1980s over the issue of slavery, and the man who embodied the ideals of that Republican Party was none other than Abraham Lincoln, who gave his life for his country to end discrimination," Durbin said. "Keep that proud Republican tradition alive."
In the Senate, opponents of the legislation remained mute through three days of debate, with no lawmaker speaking out. That changed on Thursday, as Republican Sen. Dan Coats of Indiana said the legislation would force employers to violate their religious beliefs, a direct counter to rights embodied in the Constitution.
"There's two types of discrimination here we're dealing with, and one of those goes to the very fundamental right granted to every American through our Constitution, a cherished value of freedom of expression and religion," Coats said.
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