Last night the Senate voted 61-30 to consider a law barring employers nationwide from discriminating against gay and transgender workers. Seven Republicans joined Democrats in support of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), marking the first time the Senate has taken up workplace protections for transgender Americans, and the chamber’s first consideration of legal rights for gay workers since 1996, when a version of ENDA was defeated 50-49.
Although the bill is expected to pass the Senate later this week behind overwhelming popular support, ideological resistance from House Republicans may keep it from becoming law. On Monday, Speaker John Boehner indicated that he will refuse to bring ENDA up for a vote. “The Speaker believes this legislation will increase frivolous litigation and cost American jobs, especially small business jobs,” said a spokesman.
ENDA’s dim prospects in the House illustrate how far right of the American mainstream the GOP has been pulled. More than 70 percent of the country supports legislation extending legal protections to gay and transgender workers, according to a recent Washington Post poll. In Mississippi, the state with the lowest level of support, 63 percent of residents approve of such legislation. Pollsters found the highest level of support in Massachusetts, with 81 percent in favor. Twenty-two states already bar employers from discriminating based on sexual orientation, and seventeen of those laws cover transgender workers.
“The movement of the country is way ahead of where Congress is,” said Liz Abzug, a political consultant, civil rights advocate and the daughter of Bella Abzug, who introduced the original legislation protecting gays and lesbians from discrimination in 1974. “It’s taken too long, and it’s unfortunate it may not pass the House at this point in history when we’ve gotten all sorts of gains for the LGBTQ community, including gay marriage and repealing ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’ ”
Republicans themselves acknowledge they need to revise their position on gay rights in order to stay relevant. “Already, there is a generational difference within the conservative movement about issues involving the treatment and the rights of gays—and for many younger voters, these issues are a gateway into whether the Party is a place they want to be,” reads the RNC’s 2012 autopsy. The American Unity Fund, led by heavyweight conservative donor Paul Singer and former Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman, recently hired former Republican lawmakers to lobby for ENDA. Two Republicans, Susan Collins of Maine and Mark Kirk of Illinois, co-sponsored the legislation in the Senate, and it has a handful of Republican co-sponsors in the House.
But in the lower chamber, the ideological flank that has been pulling the party to the right since 2010 is calling the shots. Fresh from triggering last month’s shutdown, the Heritage Action Fund plans to punish Republican lawmakers who vote for ENDA by marking them down on Heritage’s legislative scorecard. In opposing workplace protections for gay and transgender Americans, Heritage claims to be standing up for “business owners’ civil liberties,” which “would be trampled upon” by the law.