For the first time since it was originally introduced in 1996, the U.S. Senate took an important step toward passing the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, voting in favor of cloture — a procedural move intended to overcome any attempted filibuster — in a bipartisan vote of 61-30.
Several senators from both sides of the aisle rose to speak in support of the legislation, which would make it a federal offense for employers to fire, refuse to hire, or decline to promote employees on the basis of their actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.
Following Monday's vote for cloture, the Senate is expected to take a final vote on ENDA after additional testimony is filed, likely on Wednesday.
The bipartisan vote included 54 Senate Democrats (Missouri Democratic senator Claire McCaskill was absent), and seven Republicans, including some surprising "aye" votes from New Hampshire's Kelly Ayotte, Pennsylvania's Pat Toomey, and Ohio's Rob Portman, who came out for marriage equality earlier this year. Among Republicans who had previously expressed support for the legislation were Utah's Orrin Hatch, Illinois's Mark Kirk, Nevada's Dean Heller, and Maine's Susan Collins. Alaska senator Lisa Murkowski, a Republican who voted for the bill in committee, was absent from the chamber when roll call was taken.
The nation's first openly gay senator elected took the Senate floor first, asking her colleagues to vote in favor of ENDA and stand on the right side of history.
"I realize that for some, this is not an easy vote," said Wisconsin Democrat Tammy Baldwin on the Senate floor. "I understand that for some, they may believe that it’s not good politics. But I want to say that I have a deep respect for those who choose to stand on the side of progress for our country this week. So for those that stand up this week and answer the call for courage, I can say with confidence your courage will be respected and remembered when the history of this struggle is written."
Both senators from Illinois also rose in support of the bill, including Republican Mark Kirk, who has been largely silent and absent from congressional debate on the legislation through the past two years due to a stroke.
"This is not a major change to law," said Kirk. "It's already the law in 21 states, and I think it's particularly appropriate for an Illinois Republican to speak on behalf of this measure, in the true spirit of Everett McKinley Dirksen and Abraham Lincoln, who gave us the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 13th Amendment to the Constitution."
Kirk wasn't the only Republican to rise in support of the bill — Sen. Susan Collins of Maine also testified in support, saying ENDA provides all Americans a fair opportunity to pursue the American dream. "I'm dismayed that so many years have gone by — more than a decade — and this bill still has not become law," said Collins. "It is time for us to enact this important legislation.
Notably, no senators rose to speak in opposition to the bill, though that's unlikely to be the case in the Republican-controlled House, where the bill faces a much tougher journey to becoming law.
Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy closed his remarks with a none-too-subtle message for those lawmakers opposed to outlawing discrimination in the lower chamber of Congress.
"So I hope my fellow senators will come together and support this important bipartisan bill without delay," said Leahy in his closing remarks. "And If the other body has the courage of standing up for America, to stand up for all Americans — every single american there is — and vote for the same legislation."
Late Sunday night, President Obama published an op-ed in The Huffington Post urging the Senate to pass the legislation, and Monday morning, Nevada Republican Dean Heller announced his support for ENDA, breaching the 60-vote threshold needed for a successful cloture vote to move debate on the bill forward.