The U.S. Senate voted Monday evening to advance the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, granting workplace protections to LGBT people, by a margin of 61-30.
ENDA would make it illegal for businesses to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.
Seven Republican senators joined all the Democrats present to invoke cloture and begin debate on the bill: Mark Kirk of Illinois, Susan Collins of Maine, Orrin Hatch of Utah, Dean Heller of Nevada, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Rob Portman of Ohio and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, Talking Points Memo reports.
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, called the bill's consideration "a huge step forward, one too long in coming."
Earlier Monday, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, announced his opposition to the bill.
"The speaker believes this legislation will increase frivolous litigation and cost American jobs, especially small business jobs," Boehner's spokesman Michael Steel told TPM in an email.
Social conservatives oppose the bill and Heritage Action, an influential conservative activist group, is pressing lawmakers to block it.
"The legislation would severely undermine civil liberties, increase government interference in the labor market, and trample on religious liberty," said Heritage Action, announcing it will include the vote in its legislative scorecard. "ENDA would potentially discourage job creation because it would increase government interference in the labor market."
Rory Cooper, a spokesman for Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., confirmed that the House has no plans to take up ENDA.
"The bill under consideration in the Senate is currently not scheduled in the House," Cooper said in an email. “I hope Majority Leader Reid soon addresses the dozens of House-passed bills that have been ignored in the do-nothing Senate that create jobs, improve education and create opportunity while Americans struggle to find a good-paying job."
Chad Griffin, head of the Human Rights Campaign, the largest gay lobby, said, “Today we saw American democracy in action with the U.S. Senate finally following the will of a diverse and bipartisan collection of Americans calling for workplace fairness. ... ENDA's time has come, and we're not going to stop fighting until it is passed once and for all.”
The Senate last considered a version of ENDA in 1996, but the bill failed by one vote. On the Senate floor Monday, Harkin called that a "dark day" but noted attitudes about gay rights in America have "changed dramatically" since then. Twenty-one states now have laws with basic workplace protections for LGBT Americans.
A poll conducted this fall by Republican pollster Alex Lundry and the Americans for Workplace Opportunity campaign showed that more than two-thirds of registered voters, including 56 percent of Republicans, support the protections offered by ENDA. In fact eight out of 10 thought that such federal workplace protections were already in place.