The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee on Thursday held its first hearing on a transgender-inclusive employment nondiscrimination bill, a session that was perhaps most notable for who didn’t show up: Republicans.

Not a single GOP senator surfaced during the entire two-hour hearing to voice opposition.

“Even opponents of the bill understand that their position is indefensible, which is why they didn't show up to defend it,” said one Senate Democratic aide.

The chair of the HELP committee, Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, opened the hearing by framing the legislation as a basic matter of justice. “This issue could not be more simple,” Harkin said. “What we are talking about here is a fundamental American value -- equal treatment for all.”

Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon, lead sponsor of the bill, said, “This bill takes us a major step forward in the path toward equality in America.”

Merkley also paid tribute to the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, who introduced the first bill forbidding employment discrimination based on sexual orientation more than 15 years ago. “I know he would have liked to be in this hearing room to continue to push and see the ultimate victory in this battle for civil rights,” said Merkley.

Five witnesses testified for the Democrats -- including one gay man but no transgender individuals -- and two for Republicans.

Thomas Perez, assistant attorney general at the Department of Justice, called passage of ENDA “a top legislative priority for the Obama administration.”

“The Civil Rights Division and other federal civil rights agencies regularly receive letters and inquiries from individuals all over the country complaining of sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination in employment,” Perez said. “It is painfully disappointing to have to tell these working men and women that, in the United States of America in 2009, they may well be without redress because our federal employment antidiscrimination laws either exclude them or fail clearly to protect them.”

Colorado School of Law professor Helen Norton highlighted the point by citing a number of cases in which rulings rejected discrimination claims due to lack of legal standing.

“Sidney Taylor alleged that his coworkers repeatedly subjected him to a wide range of abusive behaviors that included groping his genitals,” said Norton. Although a federal court wrote that Taylor's coworkers’ actions were “deplorable and unacceptable,” she said, “it ruled against him on grounds that current law does not prohibit harassment based on sexual orientation or perceived sexual orientation.”

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