Twenty-seven years ago, Bella Abzug introduced the first comprehensive gay civil rights bill in the history of the Congress. Now the Senate at long last stands poised to pass what remains of that bill–the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which would prohibit discrimination in the workplace on the basis of sexual orientation. As ENDA chief sponsor Senator Ted Kennedy puts it, “More than a quarter-century later, we are long overdue in providing this basic protection to America’s work force.”

ENDA is likely to be brought to the Senate floor by majority leader Tom Daschle for a vote this summer. Its forty-three sponsors include three Republicans (Rhode Island’s Lincoln Chafee, Pennsylvania’s Arlen Specter and Oregon’s Gordon Smith), and gay lobbyists and Senate staffers believe there are enough votes to pass it by a narrow margin. But even though polls show that nearly two-thirds of Americans support the principles embodied in the bill–no discrimination in hiring and firing, compensation, or advancement on the basis of whom one loves-the puissant religious right is mounting a fierce lobbying campaign against ENDA; and in an election year, fainthearted solons may stray at the eleventh hour.

ENDA’s bipartisan support has been won at a high price. The bill in its current form contains exemptions for nearly any institution claiming a religious connection; for small businesses of fourteen employees or less; and for voluntary nonprofits like the Boy Scouts. It specifically prohibits the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission from collecting statistics on sexual orientation or from compelling employers to do so-diluting its enforceability. It does not require businesses to provide to same-sex couples the domestic partnership benefits accorded to different-sex couples. And it contains no protection for the transgendered-even though the visibility of gender-nonconformists makes them high-profile targets for bigotry.

Exclusion of the transgendered is no longer a fringe issue–in just the past few weeks, a number of cities (Dallas, Philadelphia, New York City) have extended civil rights protections to “trannies.” ENDA’s silence on this matter is one reason the country’s second-largest gay rights group, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF), is less than enthusiastic. “The bill Bella introduced in the seventies included housing and public accommodations, which this watered-down version doesn’t,” says NGLTF’s Betsy Gressler. “And our mission statement was changed four years ago to include the transgendered-which this bill doesn’t. We’re not opposed to it or trying to sabotage it-we’re just not putting a lot of resources into it.”

But the history of progress in all civil rights legislation has always been an incremental one, unfortunate though that may be; and with gay conservatives-from the Log Cabin Republicans to the Independent Gay Forum–questioning the need for ENDA (and thus providing cover for President Bush, who opposes such laws), it’s crucial that progressives make the most of this best chance to have the Senate finally go on record and say that job bigotry against gays is illegal.

Steve Elmendorf, chief of staff to House minority leader Dick Gephardt, says, “There is a bipartisan majority in both houses to pass this bill.” But the House GOP leadership has made it clear that it will never allow ENDA to get to the floor for a vote. That’s one more reason, says openly gay Representative Barney Frank, that Senate passage of ENDA is imperative: “It not only will make an important statement to the country, it will then be clear that it’s Republican control of the House that is blocking progress, and allow us to focus on the remaining Congressional political obstacles.” And, Frank adds, it will expose the fallacy of “the Human Rights Campaign’s insistence on supporting more and more Republicans so they’ll vote for it.” In the latest chapter of its wrongheaded, GOP-coddling strategy, HRC, the nation’s largest gay lobby, gave a dual endorsement to two Connecticut incumbents pitted against each other in a tossup House contest by redistricting-GOPer Nancy Johnson, whose HRC voting record in this 107th Congress has already declined to only 68 percent, and liberal Democrat Jim Maloney, who has a consistent 100 percent progay voting record. Senate passage of ENDA will help educate gay voters that, as Frank puts it, “HRC’s attitude doesn’t make sense.”

Senator Judd Gregg has announced he’ll try to amend ENDA to allow states to exempt themselves from it–effectively gutting the bill. In the fight to pass ENDA, local constituent letters to senators are of critical importance. We urge Nation readers to take just five minutes to write or e-mail their senators, demanding they vote for ENDA with no further crippling amendments. This could well be the last chance to pass ENDA for years if the Democrats lose their one-vote Senate majority this fall. Time’s a-wastin’. Do it now.