By DONNA CASSATA
WASHINGTON (AP) - The Senate prepared to push major gay rights legislation past a first, big hurdle Monday as Democrats and a handful of Republicans united behind a bill to prohibit workplace discrimination against gay, bisexual and transgender Americans.
The legislation could win Senate passage by week's end, but its prospects in the Republican-majority House are dimmer.
Hours before Monday's vote, President Barack Obama issued a fresh plea for passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, the first significant gay rights bill since Congress lifted the ban on gays serving openly in the military nearly three years ago.
"Americans ought to be judged by one thing only in their workplaces: their ability to get their jobs done," the president said in a message written for Huffingtonpost.com. "Does it make a difference if the firefighter who rescues you is gay - or the accountant who does your taxes or the mechanic who fixes your car?"
All 55 members of the Democratic majority and at least five Republicans were expected to vote to proceed with the bill, giving Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., the 60 votes necessary. Reid's Republican colleague in Nevada, Dean Heller, announced his support on Monday, saying that the measure "raises the federal standards to match what we have come to expect in Nevada, which is that discrimination must not be tolerated under any circumstance."
Opening Senate debate, Reid quoted slain gay rights leader Harvey Milk, who argued that freedom and individual rights shouldn't hinge on political deals and opinion polls.
The law, Reid said, would ensure that "all Americans regardless of where they live can go to work unafraid to be who they are." Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa., called the measure another step forward in the country's progress.
The administration, in a strong statement of support, said passage of the bill was long overdue.
Current federal law prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, race and national origin. But it doesn't stop an employer from firing or refusing to hire workers because they are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. The bill would bar employers with 15 or more workers from using a person's sexual orientation or gender identity as the basis for making employment decisions, including hiring, firing, compensation or promotion.
Possible passage of the bill by week's end would cap a 17-year quest to secure Senate support for the anti-bias measure that failed by one vote in 1996, the same year Congress passed and President Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act. That law required the federal government to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages.
Today Americans have shown increasing support for same-sex marriage, now legal in 14 states and the District of Columbia. The Supreme Court in June affirmed gay marriage and granted federal benefits to legally married same-sex couples.
Meanwhile, in Maine on Monday, six-term Democratic Rep. Mike Michaud, who is running for governor, said that he is gay.
"That may seem like a big announcement to some people. For me, it's just a part of who I am, as much as being a third-generation mill worker or a lifelong Mainer. One thing I do know is that it has nothing to do with my ability to lead the state of Maine," Michaud wrote in an op-ed article.
The anti-discrimination bill faces strong opposition from conservative groups - Heritage Action and the Faith and Freedom Coalition said the vote will be part of their legislative scorecard on lawmakers. More to its immediate prospects, the legislation is opposed by Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and it's unclear whether the House will even vote on the measure.
Reiterating Boehner's longstanding opposition, spokesman Michael Steel said Monday that Boehner "believes this legislation will increase frivolous litigation and cost American jobs, especially small business jobs."
Besides Heller, four other Republican senators are backing the legislation - Susan Collins of Maine, Mark Kirk of Illinois, Orrin Hatch of Utah and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska - and proponents expect a few others to support it.
Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, the largest gay and lesbian advocacy group, contrasted Heller's backing with Boehner's opposition.
"The speaker, of all people, should certainly know what it's like to go to work every day afraid of being fired," Griffin said, a reference to the unsuccessful, tea party-backed challenge to Boehner earlier this year.
Twenty-two states and the District of Columbia have approved laws banning workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and 17 of those also prohibit employers from discriminating based on gender identity.
About 88 percent of Fortune 500 companies have adopted nondiscrimination policies that include sexual orientation, according to the Human Rights Campaign. About 57 percent of those companies include gender identity.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce remains neutral on the bill, a spokeswoman said Monday.
Drew Hammill, a spokesman for House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, said it was disappointing that Boehner may not bring the measure to a vote. "When the Senate passes this legislation, all options will be on the table in order to advance this critical legislation in the House," Hammill said.
At the White House, spokesman Jay Carney sidestepped questions about whether Obama would consider issuing an executive order on workplace discrimination if Congress refused to act. Gay rights groups have criticized Obama for refusing to take that step, which would affect employees who work for federal contractors.
"We're focused on getting ENDA through Congress," Carney said, using the acronym for the workplace discrimination bill.
Associated Press writers Josh Lederman and Alan Fram contributed to this report.
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