ENDA clears Senate after nearly 20 years

In a 64-33 vote, including 10 Republicans, the Senate overwhelmingly passed, 64-32, the Employment Nondiscrimination Act, or ENDA, Thursday. The first version of the bill was introduced in 1994, but none has ever passed either chamber.

The bill bans discrimination against gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered persons. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, pushed a broad religious exemption for churches that helped bring more than enough Republicans on board to clear easily the 60-vote filibuster-proof threshold.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Oh, has said he will refuse to bring the bill to the House floor, despite 196 House co-sponsors including five Republicans. The Senate vote puts pressure on House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, to decide whether to force the bill to move forward through a high-risk process called a discharge petition. Pelosi would need to have enough Republicans to form a majority for passage or risk a strategic setback.

Gay rights groups think there may be as many as 20 House Republicans in “quiet” support. Pelosi has said only that “all options are on the table.” These also include attaching the bill to another must-pass piece of legislation.

Heritage Action issued a “no” vote alert on the bill, arguing, as does Boehner, that the bill would lead to frivolous lawsuits, despite a Government Accountability Office report finding a lack of evidence of such suits in 21 states that ban sexual orientation discrimination and the 16 that ban gender identity discrimination.

Boehner has also argued that workplace protections for LGBT persons is unnecessary.

Despite strong opposition from conservative groups, no Republicans who opposed the bill came to the floor to speak against it. The inclusion of transgendered persons hardly raised an eyebrow. Flake was the only Republican who spoke against the bill and he did so briefly and with a noticeable lack of passion.

Texas Sens. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn, both Republicans, voted against moving the bill. California Democratic Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein both voted in favor and gave floor speeches in support. Connecticut Sens. Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal also voted to proceed. Murphy spoke for the record arguing that the religious exemption is too broad.

Republicans in favor included besides Hatch, Susan Collins of Maine, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Jeff Flake and John McCain of Arizona, Dean Heller of Nevada, Mark Kirk of Illinois, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Rob Portman of Ohio and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania. Toomey voted to move forward despite the 43-55 failure of his amendment to broaden the religious exemption.

Carolyn Lochhead