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Senate panel passes ENDA with bipartisan support

WASHINGTON -- A Senate panel voted 15-7 today to advance the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) that would protect LGBT workers.

The bill got bipartisan support in the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions, aka the HELP Committee.

All 12 Democrats on the Senate panel approved the bill, joined by Republican Senators Orrin Hatch (Utah), Mark Kirk (Illinois) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska).

The nation's first lesbian Senator, Tammy Baldwin (Wisconsin), is a co-sponsor of the bill along with her 11 Democratic colleagues on the panel. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nevada), who is a co-sponsor of ENDA, said he plans a vote soon.

The strong support for ENDA by the panel could indicate that the bill had a good chance of passage by the full Senate, and observers now believe that ENDA has at least 55 supporters. But a majority of the 100 Senators is not really a majority anymore, since Republican obstructionists have used the filibuster to squash any legislation the minority party dislikes. So it requires 60 votes to override any filibuster attempt.

Over in the House, where Republicans are in the majority, ENDA faces an uncertain future. Recent court rulings, including DOMA and Prop 8, show that the judiciary is siding in favor of non-discrimination against LGBT Americans, and that seems to be having a ripple effect across government.

Applauding today's vote is Tico Almeida, founder and president of Freedom to Work, a national organization committed to ending employment discrimination.

"Today's vote is a monumental step forward for gay civil rights in this country and an important moment in the fight to end workforce discrimination. We applaud the leadership of Senator Harkin, Senator Kirk, Senator Merkley, Senator Murkowski, Senator Hatch and many others who made today's vote possible," he said.

"Taken with the Supreme Court rulings last month, today's vote shows that the tide has turned and the movement for full LGBT rights will not go backwards. Those who continue to stand in the way of the march towards the freedom to work, like the Republicans who voted against the legislation today, not only find themselves on the wrong side of history they find themselves on the wrong side of the founding principles of our country – justice and freedom. We will continue this fight to ensure this vital legislation passes the full Senate, the House and is signed into law by the President. Because it is far past time that all people in this country have the freedom to work.”

Michael Keegan, president of People For the American Way, said ENDA was important for American workers.

“Today’s vote is an exciting step forward on the road toward full equality for LGBT Americans. All employees deserve to be judged by their qualifications and work performance rather than by who they are or who they love. ENDA is common-sense legislation that would establish employment protections for LGBT workers nationwide," Keegan said.

“There’s no question that protecting the rights of LGBT workers is the right thing to do, but it also increasingly reflects the values of most Americans. A majority of Americans support ENDA and they know that all hardworking people should have the same shot at earning a living and contributing to our economy and our country. And yet without ENDA, in 29 states it is currently legal to fire someone for being gay – and in 33 states for being transgender or gender non-conforming," he said.

“The far Right is already clamoring that passing ENDA would lead to everything from sexual assault to the end of religious freedom in our country. But in reality, this legislation is the right thing to do and a no-brainer that all of Congress should be able to support. Workplace discrimination of any kind is not the American way,” Keegan said.

Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, was encouraged by the vote.

"We are extremely heartened that the Senate HELP committee passed ENDA today, moving it to the full Senate for action sometime this fall. With every Committee Democrat and three Republicans voting 'yes,' we are increasingly optimistic that we will have the 60 votes in the Senate and move further along towards winning relief for trans people who still face shocking amounts of job discrimination," Keisling said.

Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, noted the historical moment.

“This decisive bipartisan vote sends a clear message that there is nothing more basic, more fundamental or more American than guaranteeing that hiring decisions are based on a worker’s ability to do the job rather than who they are or who they love,” Griffin said. “Today’s vote is a victory for all Americans, and we are deeply grateful to Chairman Harkin and Senators Merkley and Kirk for their leadership, as well as all the Democrats and Republicans on the HELP Committee who stood by this vital legislation and sent it to the Senate floor.”

ENDA was introduced in the 113th Congress in the House by Reps. Jared Polis (D-CO) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) and in the Senate by Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) as well as Sens. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Susan Collins (R-ME) and Tom Harkin (D-IA).

“Now, the full Senate has a historic opportunity to tackle this issue once and for all,” Griffin said. “Today this committee proved that there is no good reason for any senator — Democrat or Republican — to oppose this commonsense legislation. It’s time to vote. ”

Winnie Stachelberg, executive vice president for External Affairs at the Center for American Progress, has followed the ENDA path since the beginning.

"I was there in 1994 as ENDA was first drafted and introduced in the Senate by the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, and I was there on that September day in 1996 when ENDA had its only Senate vote — a failed 49-50 vote. It’s been nearly two decades since then, when ENDA first sought to make it the law of the land that gay Americans would have the same workplace protections as everyone else in America," she said.

"ENDA has grown stronger by including protections for hardworking transgender Americans. But it’s hard to believe that we are still fighting to end discrimination against LGBT people in the workplace, where today in a majority of states you can still fire someone for no reason other than their sexual orientation or gender identity. Today’s vote, with Republicans joining Democrats, gives us hope that federal law will finally provide equal protection for all hardworking Americans," Stachelberg said.

GetEQUAL issued the following statement:

"Today's bipartisan passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act out of committee signals a strong opportunity for our community to finally find freedom in the workplace. We are one step closer to the American Dream of being judged by the work we do, not who we are or who we love.

"Just two weeks ago, the Supreme Court of the United States finally said what we always knew -- that our love and our lives are equal and should be treated equally under the law. But we can’t fully be equal if displaying our wedding picture at work can still get us fired. We commend Senators Kirk, Hatch and Murkowski for their courage and their leadership within the Republican Party in supporting this bill. We also thank Senators Harkin, Mikulski, Murray, Sanders, Casey, Jr., Hagan, Franken, Bennet, Whitehouse, Baldwin, Murphy and Warren for their ongoing support of this bill. Today's vote shows extraordinary progress -- but the work continues. We need Senator Reid to bring this important bill to the Senate floor for a vote as soon as possible so that work can then turn to the House of Representatives.

A"lthough we firmly oppose the religious exemptions in the current form of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, the cries from the millions of LGBT workers seeking workplace protections are thunderous. We are counting on leadership from Senators Nelson, Pryor, and Portman as we move forward, and we will continue to hold accountable those who attempt to set the clock backwards in our country and oppose this important piece of legislation, such as Senator Rubio. We have taken a historic step forward today, but we know the work will continue."

Ken Williams is Editor in Chief of SDGLN. He can be reached at ken@sdgln.com, @KenSanDiego on Twitter, or by calling toll-free to 888-442-9639, ext. 713.