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Gay rights bill heads for first hurdle in Senate

  • In this Sept. 8, 2011, file photo, Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File)

WASHINGTON — The Senate prepared to push major gay rights legislation past a first, big hurdle Monday as Democrats and a handful of Republicans united behind a bill to prohibit workplace discrimination against gay, bisexual and transgender Americans.

The legislation could win Senate passage by week's end, but its prospects in the Republican-majority House are dimmer.

Hours before Monday's vote, President Barack Obama issued a fresh plea for passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, the first significant gay rights bill since Congress lifted the ban on gays serving openly in the military nearly three years ago.

"Americans ought to be judged by one thing only in their workplaces: their ability to get their jobs done," the president said in a message written for Huffingtonpost.com. "Does it make a difference if the firefighter who rescues you is gay — or the accountant who does your taxes or the mechanic who fixes your car?"

All 55 members of the Democratic majority and at least five Republicans were expected to vote to proceed with the bill, giving Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., the 60 votes necessary. Reid's Republican colleague in Nevada, Dean Heller, announced his support on Monday, saying that the measure "raises the federal standards to match what we have come to expect in Nevada, which is that discrimination must not be tolerated under any circumstance."

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.

Possible passage of the bill by week's end would cap a 17-year quest to secure Senate support for the anti-bias measure that failed by one vote in 1996, the same year Congress passed and President Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act. That law required the federal government to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages.

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