WASHINGTON — A bill to extend historic new protections to gays in the workplace won easy Senate approval Thursday, bolstered by rare bipartisan support that illustrated the dramatic shift in the politics around gay rights amid growing public acceptance for same-sex marriage.
Seventeen years after a similar proposal failed by a single vote in the Senate, 10 Republicans joined a unanimous Democratic bloc to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, known as ENDA, which would prohibit public and private employers, employment agencies and labor unions from using sexual orientation or gender identity as the basis for decisions about employment, promotion or compensation.
"This is a really tremendous milestone — a day I will never forget in my service in the Senate," said Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), the first openly gay person elected to the Senate. "For folks like myself in the LGBT community, the opportunity to be judged in the workplace by your skills and qualifications, your loyalty, your work ethic is an important pronouncement for this nation."
Backers of the measure said the bipartisan vote puts additional pressure on Speaker John A. Boehner to bring it to a vote in the full House. President Obama said in a statement that "one party in one house of Congress should not stand in the way of millions of Americans who want to go to work each day and simply be judged by the job they do.
"Now is the time to end this kind of discrimination in the workplace, not enable it," he said.
A spokesman for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who sets the floor agenda, reiterated Thursday that a vote on the bill was "currently not scheduled in the House."
Democrats warned that Republicans would pay a price for inaction. "If the House of Representatives does insist on going down this road, they'll be sending their party straight to oblivion," Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) told reporters.
Such a statement would have been unthinkable only a decade ago, when most Americans opposed same-sex marriage and were skeptical about gay rights. President George W. Bush's campaign in 2004 galvanized its supporters with a string of state ballot measures banning same-sex marriage that helped draw Republican voters to the polls in key states.
Today, as polls show most Americans support same-sex marriage, many Republican lawmakers and candidates see the issue as a trap. Republicans who support gay rights run the risk of alienating conservative voters, particularly tea party supporters. Those who vote against such measures are portrayed by Democrats as extremists and out of touch.
Ari Fleischer, a former Bush spokesman, wrote in an opinion piece published Thursday by Politico that the House should allow the bill to come to the floor and act in a "more inclusive and welcoming manner." Gay rights, he said, "are gateways into whether young people see the GOP as a party worthy of support."
Last November saw the first successful referendums to allow same-sex marriage in four states. Just this week, Illinois lawmakers gave final approval to legislation that would make the state the 15th to allow such unions.
Though 34 Republicans voted against ENDA in the Senate, few spoke out against it during the floor debate. Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.) warned that the bill violates the "cherished value of freedom of expression and religion."
The bill includes an exemption for religious groups that was strengthened by a Republican amendment to ensure that the government could not retaliate against those organizations in awarding contracts and grants.
Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who said he still had concerns about the effect the bill could have on some employers, nonetheless voted for it and expressed hope that the House could make further changes.
Congress hasn't passed major gay rights legislation since 2010, when it voted to end the "don't ask, don't tell" policy that barred gays from openly serving in the military. In 2007 the House, then controlled by Democrats, passed a version of ENDA that did not include the provision for transgender individuals. Thirty-five Republicans voted for it at the time, though only 10 of those continue to serve in the House today.
One of them, Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), would not commit to supporting the Senate-passed bill.
"Congressman Ryan does not believe someone should be fired because of their sexual orientation," said Ryan spokesman Kevin Seifert. "That said, any legislation to address this concern should be narrowly crafted to guard against unintended consequences."
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) said this week that 95% of Democrats in the House are ready to vote for the Senate-passed bill. Just 10% of Republicans are needed to ensure passage.
The Republican senators who supported the current bill include longtime sponsors like Mark Steven Kirk of Illinois and Susan Collins of Maine — the only Republican senator seeking reelection next year in a state Obama carried in 2012.
"I have always believed that workplace discrimination — whether based on religion, gender, race, national origin or sexual orientation — is inconsistent with the basic values that America holds dear," McCain said.
But Republicans facing competitive primary challenges from conservative or tea party candidates voted against the measure. With an eye toward 2014 reelection, many are looking to shore up their conservative credentials. Among them was Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who on Thursday also introduced the so-called Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, which would ban abortions about four weeks earlier than the standard set by the U.S. Supreme Court under Roe vs. Wade. Thirty-two Republicans signed on as cosponsors.
Senate Democrats called Graham's bill a nonstarter, predicting that Republican positions on gay rights and abortion would cost them at the polls.