Update: 9:25 A.M.
When the Senate holds a test vote Monday on legislation outlawing workplace discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals, Republicans will face a tough choice: let the bill advance and face the wrath of conservatives, or filibuster a popular gay rights advancement amid a national sea change in favor of the cause.
The Employment Non-Discrimination Act, or ENDA, prohibits businesses with 15 or more employees from making employment decisions based on a worker’s sexual orientation or gender identity. The legislation, now led by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), has languished in Congress since it was first introduced in 1994.
The bill needs 60 votes to move forward. If Democrats vote in unity, as they expect to, they’ll need five Republicans. GOP Sens. Susan Collins (ME) and Mark Kirk (IL) are co-sponsors, while Sens. Lisa Murkowski (AK) and Orrin Hatch (UT) voted for the legislation in committee. And Sen. Dean Heller (NV) announced his support for the bill Monday, giving Democrats their 60th vote, as long as no senator switches sides.
“After listening to Nevadans’ concerns about this issue from a variety of viewpoints and after numerous conversations with my colleagues, I feel that supporting this legislation is the right thing to do,” Heller said in a statement. “Nevada has established a solid foundation of anti-discrimination laws. 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.”
As of Sunday night, Democrats were lobbying Heller along with Sens. Rob Portman (OH), Pat Toomey (PA) and Kelly Ayotte (NH) to bring ENDA past the finish line, a Democratic aide close to the bill said. They were most hopeful of winning over Heller and Portman, whose son publicly came out as gay earlier this year.
It’s expected to be a tight vote and outside conservative advocates whipping against the bill.
Social conservatives see ENDA as part of a broader national march toward LGBT rights. According to a report in the New York Times, they appear to be waging a whisper campaign spreading false claims such as that ENDA would require insurers to cover sex change operations, that it’d lead to children being taught by men in dresses and that it’d require Christian bookstores to hire drag queens.
Heritage Action, a well-funded activist group with substantial influence over Republicans, is pushing senators to filibuster ENDA. The organization announced last week it would include Monday’s procedural vote in its legislative scorecard.
Workplace discrimination against gays and lesbians is already illegal in 21 states and the District of Columbia. Twenty-nine states have no laws banning employer bias on the basis of sexual orientation, and 33 states lack protections for workers on the basis of gender identity, according to the Human Rights Campaign, a leading LGBT rights group.
For Republicans, the issue a test of whether they’re willing to follow the counsel of national party strategists and put on a friendlier face for the gay and lesbian community. For Democrats, it’s a political win-win. They either score a policy victory or position themselves on the right side of an increasingly popular cause.
“[R]ight now, in 2013, in many states a person can be fired simply for being lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender,” President Barack Obama wrote in a Huffington Post op-ed published Sunday night. “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 fireable offense. That’s why Congress needs to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.”