The Senate late Monday advanced legislation that would make it illegal for employers to discriminate against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender workers, putting pressure on reluctant House Republicans to take it up.
The Employment Non-Discrimination Act, or ENDA, advanced in the Senate on a 61-30 procedural vote in which a handful of moderate Republicans joined with the Democratic majority.
The future of the bill is far from certain. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, announced Monday that the Republican-run House would not take up the measure because lawmakers believe it would increase lawsuits against employers and hurt small businesses.
Democrats pounced on House Republicans as a party on the "wrong side of history" in hopes of capitalizing on what polls show is growing public support for the anti-discrimination legislation and an increased acceptance of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
Democratic political consultant Doug Schoen said Boehner's refusal to take up the ENDA legislation will hurt Republicans, particularly with young voters.
"This couldn't be more regressive or counterproductive," Schoen said.
House Democrats' campaign fundraising arm put out a statement criticizing Republicans shortly after the Senate vote.
"Like so many other issues, House Republicans are disconnected from mainstream reality in this country, where there is bipartisan consensus that no one should be fired because of who they love," Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel, D-N.Y., said.
Republican strategist Ron Bonjean, a former top GOP leadership aide, said Democrats will try to use the GOP's opposition to ENDA to shift the public's focus away from the botched rollout of Obamacare. But it won't work, he said.
"It doesn't seem likely [ENDA] will be on the radar screens of American voters like Obamacare has been," Bonjean said.
Not wanting to damage the fragile bipartisan coalition in the Senate, Democrats didn't criticize Republicans during debate on the bill.
"I'm hoping Republicans will step up and realize this shouldn't be a partisan issue," Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said.
Despite ENDA's poor prognosis in the House, Democratic senators were pleased with their success in advancing the bill, a version of which failed in the Senate by a single vote during the Clinton administration.
"This is an historic step," Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said.
Applause broke out in the Senate chamber when the bill garnered the 60 votes needed to move it to the Senate floor for debate. Several Republicans were absent for the vote, including Sens. Tom Coburn, of Oklahoma, and John McCain, of Arizona.
The Senate will spend part of the week considering the bill on the Senate floor before an all-but-assured final passage.
The legislation would make it illegal for companies that employ 15 or more people to refuse to hire someone or otherwise discriminate against someone "because of … perceived sexual orientation or gender identity."
The legislation affords special federal protections for transgendered people, who dress and act as the opposite sex, shielding them from wrongful firing or discrimination in hiring.
During Monday's floor debate, proponents pointed to cases of discrimination against workers based on sexual orientation and noted that it is still legal in 29 states to fire or refuse to hire someone if they are gay, lesbian or transgendered.
"The time to pass it has come," Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said. "All Americans deserve a fair opportunity to pursue the American dream."
Conservative groups, including Heritage Action, have been lobbying heavily against the bill, saying it threatens civil liberties, the free market, traditional marriage and moral culture. Religious groups also oppose it, fearing they would have to hire people whose sexual orientation goes against their beliefs.
A Government Accountability Office published in July found that in the 22 states where similar non-discrimination laws are already in place, "relatively few" discrimination lawsuits occurred as as result.
The study shows a slight uptick in lawsuits based on sexual orientation. In states for which data was available, the anti-discrimination law resulted in only a handful of lawsuits. In Nevada, six cases based on gender identity workforce discrimination were filed in 2012, compared with none in 2011.
The seven Republicans who voted to move the bill forward included Sens. Kelly Ayotte, of New Hampshire; Susan Collins, of Maine; Rob Portman, of Ohio; Pat Toomey, of Pennsylvania; Mark Kirk, of Illinois; Orrin Hatch, of Utah; and Dean Heller, of Nevada.