With the backing of 10 Republican senators, the Senate passed a bill Thursday that bans discrimination in the workplace based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
The Senate voted 64 to 32 in favor of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, also known as ENDA, the first major piece of legislation addressing gay rights since Congress repealed "Don't Ask Don't Tell" in 2010.
"Let the bells of freedom ring," Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., a co-sponsor of the bill, said in a news conference Thursday.
The gay rights bill drew bipartisan support in the Senate with all Senate Democrats and 10 Republicans supporting ENDA. The Republicans included Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H.; Susan Collins, R-Maine; Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.; Orrin Hatch, R-Utah; Dean Heller, R-Nev;, Mark Kirk, R-Ill;, John McCain, R-Ariz;, Lisa Murkowski, R-Ala.; Rob Portman, R-Ohio; and Pat Toomey, R-Penn. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., missed the vote because he was with his wife who is recovering from surgery, but he is a strong supporter of the bill and would have voted in favor of it.
"Today, a bipartisan majority in the Senate took another important step in this journey by passing the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would help end the injustice of our fellow Americans being denied a job or fired just because they are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender," President Obama said in a statement. "Just as no one in the United States can lose their job simply because of their race, gender, religion or a disability, no one should ever lose their job simply because of who they are or who they love."
The bill now heads to the House of Representatives where its prospects are grim. House Speaker John Boehner opposes the legislation and has said he will not bring it up for a vote.
"The Speaker believes this legislation will increase frivolous litigation and cost American jobs, especially small business jobs," Michael Steel, a spokesman for Boehner, said earlier this week.
President Obama pressed Boehner to allow a vote on the legislation.
"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. Now is the time to end this kind of discrimination in the workplace, not enable it," Obama said. I urge the House Republican leadership to bring this bill to the floor for a vote and send it to my desk so I can sign it into law."
Senate Democrats urged Boehner to take it to the floor and argued that a decision not to vote on the bill would have major implications on the Republican Party.
"Speaker Boehner, please, please do what is right for the American people. Let's do this legislation," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said. "It is fair. This legislation is only about fairness. More than 80 percent of the American people already believe it's the law. So let's do it."
If "the House of Representatives does insist on going … down this road, they'll be sending their party straight to oblivion," Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said. "They've sat on a farm bill; they've sat on an immigration bill; they've sat on issue after issue. So the House seems to be the place where bipartisan Senate legislation goes to die."
The vote comes less than five months after the Supreme Court bolstered same-sex marriage by declaring the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional and striking down the Proposition 8 ballot initiative, which defined marriage between one man and one woman. In 1996, the Senate failed to pass ENDA by one vote and the House of Representatives rejected it as well.
Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., the first openly gay member of the U.S. Senate, called the vote a "tremendous milestone" for the LGBT community.
"For folks like myself in the LGBT community, the opportunity to be judged in the workplace by your skills and qualifications, your loyalty, your work ethic is an important pronouncement for this nation," Baldwin said. "When we say something is wrong and it shouldn't be done, that sends a powerful message to prevent discrimination in the first place."
"This is a really tremendous milestone, a day I will never forget in my service in the Senate," she added.