Updated 7:49 p.m. | The Senate cleared the first procedural hurdle Monday on legislation prohibiting employment discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.
The Senate agreed on a 61-30 vote to bring up the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, championed in the Senate by Democrat Jeff Merkley of Oregon. Seven Republicans joined all present Democrats in favor. GOP senators who supported moving forward with the bill included Susan Collins of Maine, Dean Heller of Nevada, Mark S. Kirk of Illinois, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Rob Portman of Ohio, Orrin G. Hatch of Utah and Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania.
With supporters Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, not present, the vote initially appeared as if it would fall short. The drama was heightened by a small number of Republicans concerned about religious exemptions in the bill.
Collins called Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., into the GOP cloakroom to broker a deal to get the needed votes, according to a senior Senate Democratic aide. And with supporters hovering one vote shy of the 60 needed, Portman and Toomey emerged to provide the 60th and 61st votes.
Portman secured an agreement with Democrats to receive votes on two of his amendments to the legislation, an aide confirmed. One of the amendments, which Merkley said is also backed by Ayotte, would reinforce the religious exemption language to ensure that religious organizations would not be burdened unduly by the law. Merkley said he would support the Portman-Ayotte measure.
"The bill's religious exemption ensures that churches and other religious employers may continue to operate according to their deeply held beliefs. I had concerns, however, that ENDA could leave the door open for the government to discriminate against these very groups on the basis of those beliefs," Portman said in a statement. "I am pleased that the bill's authors have decided to allow a vote on my amendment to prevent retaliation against religious organizations. I am also pleased that the authors were willing to support my amendment to make other changes to the bill's introductory section that highlight and explain the importance of religious liberty."
Toomey also was assured a vote on an amendment to address his concerns.
"I believe the Employment Non-Discrimination Act contains very important provisions," he said in a statement. "However, I also believe it should be improved, especially as it pertains to religious organizations. We must strive to reach the appropriate balance between protecting workers and protecting religious freedom. I voted to move forward with debate on ENDA with the hope that the Senate will take up amendments — including one that I plan to offer — to address this important aspect of the proposed law."
Toomey's amendment would broaden the definition of religious organizations exempted from the law. The amendment would need 60 votes for adoption and is not expected to clear that hurdle.
Before the vote, Kirk delivered his first floor speech since suffering from a stroke almost two years ago, to urge his colleagues to support the civil rights bill.
"I've risen to speak because I believe so passionately in enacting the ENDA statute," Kirk said. "I think it's particularly appropriate for an Illinois Republican to speak on behalf of this measure. In the true tradition of Everett McKinley Dirsken and Abraham Lincoln, men who gave us the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 13th Amendment to the Constitution."
The legislation seems likely to pass the Senate this week, with Heller coming out as the 60th declared supporter earlier Monday.
It's unclear what will happen to the legislation now, with Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, already saying he won't support it but feeling pressure to bring the bill to the floor for a vote. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney pointed to the Violence Against Women Act as a bill that Boehner didn't support that ultimately passed the House anyway. Though some have argued President Barack Obama could move without congressional help to establish a federal anti-discrimination standard, Carney said the administration's preference is still for Congress to approve the bill first.
Humberto Sanchez contributed to this report.