LGBT Protections Advance in Senate

Senate leaders hope to capitalize on growing support for gay rights – especially after the landmark DOMA decision.

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And if they can’t win by passing new laws, they hope to win politically.

Senator Lisa Murkowski joined two Republicans and every Democrat on the Labor Committee in voting to move the Employee Non-Discrimination Act to the full Senate.

“There should be a fundamental agreement that we have that discrimination should just not be allowed,” Murkowski said. “We should just not operate in a discriminatory manner, in a workplace, in our schools.”

ENDA, as the bill is known in Washington-lingo, would make it illegal for any employer to fire someone because of their sexual orientation or identity.

Identity is a key component. Senator Lamar Alexander, the top Republican on the committee, said he will introduce amendments when the full Senate debates the bill, including one to clarify what “transitioning” means for people under going sex changes.

“If we can’t be specific about what’ we’re talking about, it’s hard to expect the employers to be,” Alexander said. He opted not to bring the amendments up for committee votes.

The transgender issue has been a roadblock in the past. In 2007, the House passed a version of ENDA only after it stripped out protections for transgender people. That bill won the support of nearly three dozen Republicans. But today’s House is far more conservative.

Iowa’s Tom Harkin chairs the Labor Committee. Long a voice for the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, the retiring senator said current law allows both the government and private sector to discriminate against people … despite growing support for gay rights.

“Qualified workers should not be turned away or have to fear losing their livelihood for reasons that have nothing to do with their qualifications, skills, or performance. So let’s not mince words, at least I won’t. Such practices are un-American, they should have no place in any American workplace,” he said in his opening remarks.

Congress has debated the issue for years, but it’s never passed the Senate.

This go around is likely to be different. More than 50 Democratic senators have signed on as cosponsors, including Mark Begich. He said he’s long supported legal protection for LGBT people.

With Murkowski, the two other committee Republicans and Maine’s Susan Collins, supporters are close to the 60 vote threshold.

But House leaders have not said they’ll bring anything to the floor.

Begich said it’s worth moving through the Senate, even if the House won’t take it up.

“We vote on what we think is important and issues we can pass. But if we sit around and wait for them to pass stuff, I’ll be old and gray,” he said with a laugh.

Congress has a full agenda for the next few weeks before it takes off for the August recess. But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has promised swift action – at least in his chamber.

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