WASHINGTON — The Senate pushed a major anti-bias gay rights bill past a first, big hurdle Monday, a clear sign of Americans' greater acceptance of homosexuality nearly two decades after the law prohibiting federal recognition of same-sex marriage.
The vote of 61-30 essentially ensured that the Senate has the votes to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act that would prohibit workplace discrimination against gay, bisexual and transgender Americans.
Final passage, possibly by week's end, would cap a 17-year quest to secure Senate support for a similar discrimination measure that failed by one vote in 1996, the same year Congress passed and President Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act.
Reflecting the nation's shifting views toward gay rights and the fast-changing political dynamic, seven Senate Republicans joined with 54 Democrats to vote to move ahead on the legislation.
"Rights are sometimes intangible but, boy if you've ever been discriminated against, seeking employment or seeking an advancement, it's bitter," Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., the only openly gay member of the Senate, said after the vote. "And it's been a long, long fight, but I think its day has come. And that's just very exciting to witness."
The legislation would be the first significant gay rights legislation since Congress ended the ban on gays serving openly in the military in December 2010. The Supreme Court in June affirmed gay marriage and granted federal benefits to legally married same-sex couples while same-sex marriage is legal in 14 states and the District of Columbia.
About a half hour after the Senate acted, President Barack Obama cited the vote as an example of "common sense starting to prevail" in a Congress that has opposed much of his agenda.
"Inexorably, the idea of a more tolerant, more prosperous country that offers more opportunity to more people, that's an idea that the vast majority of Americans believe in," the president told a group of supporters gathered for a summit in Washington Monday night.
Prospects are dimmer in the Republican-led House where Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, remains opposed.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, a chief sponsor of the legislation, said the 60-plus bipartisan vote should force the House to vote on the legislation.
"It was Republican votes that made the difference tonight and that that is a strong signal," Collins aid. "I also think that attitudes are changing very rapidly on gay rights issues and we're seeing that with each passing day. More and more people have embraced equality."
The vote served as a vivid reminder of the nation's changing views and lingering resistance to homosexuality. The political implications resonated in Maine, as six-term Democratic Rep. Mike Michaud, who is running for governor, said he was gay and questioned whether it still mattered to voters.
In high drama for the Senate, the typical 15-minute vote stretched beyond 30 minutes of waiting and cajoling.
Two backers of the measure — Sens. Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — were on planes back to Washington. That left sponsors stuck at 58 of the necessary 60 votes, forcing Collins and Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., to lobby fiercely, sometimes at the door of the Republican cloakroom off the Senate floor.
Minutes into the vote, Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire emerged to vote yes. Then the outcome rested with Sens. Rob Portman of Ohio, who announced earlier this year that his son was gay and he supported same-sex marriage, and Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania.
After extended discussions, Portman and Toomey emerged to vote yes.
"I have long believed that more legal protections are appropriate to prevent employment discrimination based on sexual orientation," Toomey said in a statement after the vote, in which he promised to offer an amendment to protect religious freedom.
The other Republicans who voted yes were Sens. Orrin Hatch of Utah, who had opposed the discrimination measure in 1996, Dean Heller of Nevada, and Mark Kirk of Illinois.