The U.S. Senate will take up a gay rights bill before Thanksgiving, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Monday.
The Employment Non-Discrimination Act bans workplace discrimination by employers on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Religious organizations and the U.S. military are exempted. ENDA has been introduced in nearly every Congress since 1994, and it came one vote shy of passage in 1996. It has not been given a full Senate vote since.
Federal laws already ban employer discrimination based on on race, color, sex, nationality, religion, age or disability.
"We think this vote is long overdue," said Freedom to Work founder Tico Almeida, a former counsel in the U.S. House of Representatives who helped draft the legislation. The House passed a version of the legislation in 2007, but it died in the Senate and faced a veto threat from then-President George W. Bush.
Almeida said he and other ENDA advocates have worked to build critical Republican support for the legislation, which included provisions to ensure protections for religious-based employers. That language helped garner the support of Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who voted for the bill in committee.
Almeida is confident the legislation has enough support to pass a 60-vote hurdle in the Senate to break a potential filibuster. At least 55 senators have already endorsed the legislation, including GOP Sens. Mark Kirk of Illinois and Susan Collins of Maine.
President Obama supports ENDA, but it faces an uncertain future in the GOP-controlled House. One of the chief House sponsors is Florida Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, and the legislation has 186 co-sponsors in the House with support from moderate Republicans including Reps. Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania and Richard Hanna of New York.
"The question is: Can we push House leadership to actually hold a vote? If they held it, I think we would win," said Almeida, who said lawmakers could seek other paths to a vote, including a discharge petition, which forces a vote on the floor if a majority demands it.
There are indicators that conservatives could also support the bill. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., the party's 2012 vice presidential nominee and a trusted voice within the House ranks, voted for the House bill in 2007 and his potential support for the current legislation is a "glimmer of hope" for ENDA advocates, Almeida said.