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.
Kirk delivered his first speech on the Senate floor since suffering a stroke in January 2012. Seated at a desk, Kirk said it was especially important for an Illinois Republican to speak out for the legislation in the tradition of Everett Dirksen and Abraham Lincoln, two leaders on civil rights.
The three potential Republican presidential candidates — Marco Rubio of Florida, Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky — voted against, a reflection that among core GOP conservative voters opposition to gay rights remains strong. No senator spoke in opposition to the measure during Monday's debate.
Tony Perkins of the conservative Family Research Council said in a statement that he was disappointed in the Senate vote, but "confident that the U.S. House of Representatives will ultimately reject ENDA because it not only threatens the free market but religious liberties as well."
Current federal law prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, race and national origin. But it doesn't stop an employer from firing or refusing to hire workers because they are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.
The bill would bar employers with 15 or more workers from using a person's sexual orientation or gender identity as the basis for making employment decisions, including hiring, firing, compensation or promotion.
The bill would exempt religious institutions and the military.
Opening Senate debate, Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., quoted slain gay rights leader Harvey Milk, who argued that freedom and individual rights shouldn't hinge on political deals and opinion polls.
The law, Reid said, would ensure that "all Americans regardless of where they live can go to work unafraid to be who they are." Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa., called the measure another step forward in the country's progress.
Meanwhile, in Maine, Michaud wrote about his homosexuality.
"That may seem like a big announcement to some people. For me, it's just a part of who I am, as much as being a third-generation mill worker or a lifelong Mainer. One thing I do know is that it has nothing to do with my ability to lead the state of Maine," Michaud wrote in an op-ed article.
The anti-discrimination bill faces strong opposition from conservative groups — Heritage Action and the Faith and Freedom Coalition said the vote will be part of their legislative scorecard on lawmakers. More to its immediate prospects, the legislation is opposed by Boehner, casting doubt on whether the House will vote.
Reiterating Boehner's longstanding opposition, spokesman Michael Steel said Monday that Boehner "believes this legislation will increase frivolous litigation and cost American jobs, especially small business jobs."
Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, the largest gay and lesbian advocacy group, contrasted Heller's backing with Boehner's opposition.
"The speaker, of all people, should certainly know what it's like to go to work every day afraid of being fired," Griffin said, a reference to the unsuccessful, tea party-backed challenge to Boehner earlier this year.
Twenty-two states and the District of Columbia have approved laws banning workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and 17 of those also prohibit employers from discriminating based on gender identity.
About 88 percent of Fortune 500 companies have adopted nondiscrimination policies that include sexual orientation, according to the Human Rights Campaign. About 57 percent of those companies include gender identity.
Associated Press writers Josh Lederman, Nedra Pickler and Alan Fram contributed to this report.
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