WASHINGTON — Arkansas’ two U.S. senators split Monday as the Senate agreed to move ahead with legislation to ban workplace discrimination against gays and lesbians some 17 years after a similar effort failed by a single vote.
The Senate narrowly cleared a 60-vote procedural hurdle, voting 61 to 30 to clear the way for passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, or ENDA. All 55 Democrats, including Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor, voted in favor. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., was among those in opposition.
“We can all agree that every American should be treated fairly in the workplace, but I have concerns that this legislation creates special protections for a specific class of people, which could trigger unnecessary lawsuits and harm everyday employees,” Boozman said in a statement.
Pryor was among the last of the Democrats to announce his support for the bill, telling his staff last week of his decision.
The bill would ban workplace discrimination against gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender persons, a civil rights measure that supporters have tried to get passed since 1994. It already is illegal to discriminate on the basis of race, color, sex, religion, disability, age or nationality.
A final vote approving the bill in the Senate is expected later this week.
The legislation was last considered in the Senate in 1996, when it failed, 49-50. Missing the vote was Sen. David Pryor, who had returned to Arkansas to be with his son, Mark, as he underwent emergency surgery.
The elder Pryor would have provided the 50th vote for the bill, allowing then Vice President Al Gore to break the tie and pass the legislation.
In the intervening years, 21 states have approved workplace anti-discrimination protections for gay, lesbian and bisexual employees. Public opinion has also shifted as a clear majority supports those protections.
Proponents of the bill say action is needed to extend unified protections to every state.
“A patchwork of state laws that excludes tens of millions of Americans from basic protection from discrimination is simply not good enough. It is time for Congress to pass a federal law that ensures all Americans, regardless of where they live, can go to work unafraid to be themselves,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
Speaking in support of the bill, the American Civil Liberties Union has declared, “People should be judged at work by their performance, not by whom they choose to love.”
In opposition, the conservative Heritage Action for America has questioned whether there are adequate protections in the bill for religious organizations that choose not to hire LGBT individuals.
Writing in the National Review, Heritage Foundation fellow Ryan Anderson said ENDA “would further increase federal government interference in labor markets, potentially discouraging job creation.”
The bill’s future is uncertain in the House. A companion bill has just a handful of Republican co-sponsors and Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has confirmed he opposes it.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Monday that Boehner’s opposition does not necessarily mean the bill cannot move through the House, noting that the Violence Against Women Act cleared the House despite GOP leadership opposition.
“So we need to continue to pressure Congress to — or the American people to — get this done because it’s the right thing to do,” Carney said.